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Defense Canned The Candidates

Heisman hopefuls Danny Marino and Kelvin Bryant didn't impress any voters in Pitt's 7-6 victory over North Carolina

Serafino Dante Fazio, called Foge, spent the day after his first victory as a head coach the way new coaches usually spend them, particularly those with Fazio's outgoing manner. He glad-handed everyone in sight, read congratulatory telegrams, chatted with former players on the phone—"Hey, did you catch my act on the sidelines?" he asked ex-Panther Jo Jo Heath—and forgot to tell his secretary to pick up his wife for an appointment.

"That was a bad one," said Fazio, shaking his head.

Norma Fazio will no doubt forgive her husband's oversight because he is, after all, the first Pitt head coach to win his debut since John Michelosen in 1955. Such notables as John Majors and Jackie Sherrill, from whom Fazio took the reins this season when Sherrill went to Texas A&M, had losing debuts at Pitt. So did Carl DePasqua in 1969.

Of course, Fazio was supposed to win, and in more spectacular fashion than the desultory 7-6 triumph the Panthers achieved over North Carolina last Thursday night at Three Rivers Stadium. And he's supposed to win the next 10 games too, judging from Pitt's consensus preseason No. 1 ranking. The Panthers will probably survive as No. 1 this week—SI kept them in the top position—but their offensive performance against Carolina (197 net yards, seven illegal-procedure or offsides penalties) isn't the stuff of which national champions are made.

"I expected maybe 35-28 our way," said Fazio after the game. "I expected a high-scoring game. I wanted to give our fans a good show. Seven-six, that's Neanderthal football."

Oh, how quickly men in power are corrupted. First, Fazio comes to the game in a spiffy blue blazer and khaki slacks, disdaining the windbreaker he wore when he was a Pitt assistant. "Hey, everybody dresses up for a debut, right?" he said. "I thought I looked nice. I'm going to wear it all season." Then, the man who fashioned the best defense in college football the last two seasons says he wants to see touchdowns.

In truth, the game was supposed to be a Heisman highlight film for the national TV audience, but, in an active day of trading, the Heisman stock of both Pitt Quarterback Danny Marino (28 passes, 15 completions for a mere 125 yards, four interceptions and three sacks) and North Carolina Running Back Kelvin Bryant (58 yards rushing in 16 carries) plummeted several points on the big board. Marino at times used the forward pass like a punt, throwing it blindly into a three-deep Carolina zone. Bryant picked up 19 of his 58 yards on one carry and committed a fumble that aborted a second-quarter drive.

But defense had a lot to do with the offensive play of The Candidates, too. Pitt's defense is, quite simply, the best in the country. Nine starters have returned from the unit that last year ranked No. 1 in both total defense and rushing defense. And the Panthers' two new starters, Linebacker Charles (Yogi) Jones (12 tackles) and Cornerback Troy Hill (five tackles, recovery of Bryant's fumble), were among Thursday night's stars.

In the preseason, the North Carolina defense was even more overshadowed by Bryant's publicity than Pitt's was by Marino's. The Tar Heels, who ranked fifth nationally with a per-game yield of just 11.2 points in 1981, have seven starters back, including Linebacker Mike Wilcher, Cornerback Greg Poole and a solid front anchored by Tackle William Fuller. All played superbly against Pitt.

Maybe Coach Dick Crum and Defensive Coordinator Denny Marcin know something nobody else knows. The last time Pitt was held to just seven points was in the second game of the 1979 season at Chapel Hill, when the Tar Heels upset the Panthers 17-7.

Next to the individual excellence of Bryant, defense was the main reason for North Carolina's high preseason ranking (the Tar Heels were No. 10 in SI's poll, and remain there this week). "That's the best defensive team we've ever played," said Pitt Offensive Guard Ron Sams. "They shut down everything we wanted to do."

Almost everything. Perhaps it was the chorus of Danny Boy that the Pitt band played at the end of its halftime show, but Marino looked every bit The Candidate on Pitt's second series of the second half. Trailing 3-0, the Panthers marched 69 yards on seven plays, the last a four-yard scoring pass from Marino to Tailback Bryan Thomas who curled in under Tight End John Brown. Marino completed three other passes for 42 yards on the drive.

But that was about the sum of Marino's heroics. On Pitt's first offensive series, Marino and Flanker Dwight Collins just missed connecting on a 55-yard bomb that Collins caught out of bounds. Thinking he could throw deep, Marino did just that—Poole called it the "get-rich-quick theory"—and three of his bombs were picked off without a Pitt receiver close. To put Marino's night in perspective, All-America candidate Collins had as many tackles as receptions—two.

Marino, who hadn't been held under 200 yards passing since his sophomore year, didn't try to defend or rationalize his erratic performance against North Carolina. "Most of the time I didn't play intelligently," he said. "First, I would make a mistake, then somebody else would make a mistake, and then somebody else would make a mistake. I'll just have to work a little harder."

Bryant credited Pitt's defense for his poor showing, but he also said he was hurting physically. He had suffered a bruised left foot on Aug. 23 and missed eight practices. Before his first run from scrimmage, he hadn't been hit in about three weeks. Feeling Bryant was lacking in stamina, Crum used sophomore Ethan Horton (14 carries for 39 yards) almost as much as Bryant.

Bryant broke free only once—midway in the second quarter when Hill tripped him up after the 19-yard gain on a sprint draw. Eventually, the Tar Heels drove to the Pitt 16, but they blew two golden opportunities. First, an illegal motion penalty nullified a swing pass to Fullback Alan Burrus that would've put the Heels on the three-yard line. Then Bryant, with running room after catching another short pass, simply dropped the ball without being touched; and Hill, who spent part of the summer practicing his coverages against his brother-in-law. Drew Pearson of the Dallas Cowboys, recovered on the 14. "It just slipped off my jersey," said Bryant.

Obviously, Pitt's defense hasn't suffered at all since the arrival of Defensive Coordinator Charlie Bailey from the University of Kentucky last February. Though Bailey is philosophically more conservative than the blitz-happy Fazio, he's as much of a "wild man on the field," according to Hill.

Bailey feels the key to Pitt's defense is the interior three: Dave Puzzuoli and J.C. Pelusi and junior Bill Maas. Puzzuoli is 6'3", 248 and runs a 4.9 40; Pelusi is 6'1", 251, 4.8; Maas is 6'4", 260, 4.9. None of their elevators, Maas assures us, goes to the top floor.

Maas's sack of Quarterback Rod Elkins late in the fourth quarter stopped a Carolina drive at the Pitt 31. Rob Rogers did kick a 48-yard field goal that made it 7-6 with 4:57 remaining, but Carolina could get no closer. That was Pitt's No-Maas defense. However, it was also the overaggressive Maas who helped Carolina score its first points (on a 39-yard field goal by Brooks Barwick in the second quarter) when he kept a drive alive with a roughing-the-kicker penalty.

"You know something," said Marino upon seeing Maas in the hall after a team meeting on Friday, "you're my favorite player."

"I know," said Maas.

Even after his subpar performance, Marino fulfilled his role as The Candidate; a full hour after the game, he was still in uniform, patiently answering reporters' questions. Rock star Stephen Stills stopped by to see Marino, whom he had met at a recent Crosby-Stills-Nash gig in Pittsburgh. "He's a nice kid," said Stills. "He wore my jersey on stage," said Marino.

Another impostor seemed to be wearing Marino's jersey against North Carolina, but thanks to Pitt's defense, it didn't matter.


Marino kept giving it the old heave-ho, but hoo boy, those four intercepted passes.


Maas handed Bryant a taste of the No-Maas defense.