"From what I could tell from watching some tape, Eric Thatcher was playing real well, and they never recovered from losing him in the secondary,'' Pitt secondary coach Chris Ball said. "Mike Phillips really wasn't 100 percent, either, and that didn't help. But they were real thin at safety.''
Thatcher started the first five games at free safety for Pittsburgh, while senior Sam Bryant was the strong safety. Thatcher broke his ankle during practice before the Syracuse game when Pitt was 4-1. And Phillips, not yet completely recovered from his broken ankle the year before, stepped in at free safety and was a step slow the rest of the way. Even though Pitt opened with a 6-1 record, it went 2-5 after Thatcher got hurt.
Pitt lost five straight to close the season, including a 46-45 overtime defeat at Connecticut when the Huskies tallied 481 total yards and passed for three touchdowns in the fourth quarter alone. West Virginia passes for 204 yards in a 45-27 win and also ran for another 437. Quarterback Pat White (220) and tailback Steve Slaton (215) tallied 435 rushing years between them. And in the finale with Louisville, All-America quarterback Brian Brohm threw for 337 yards and four touchdowns in a 48-24 win.
"I'm sure losing me was a little bad,'' the usually loquacious Thatcher said. "It was just a little pass here and a pass there that kept us away from a bowl game and a better season. I'm sure I could've helped a little bit. We were just so think in the secondary, and we couldn't afford any injuries, really.''
Pitt allowed 11 touchdown passes during those five consecutive losses that ended the season, even as opponents were gaining most of their yardage with the run. Remarkably, Pitt gave up all those scores despite having an NFL first-round draft pick at cornerback -- Darrelle Revis. And two others at linebacker in H.B. Blades and Clint Session.
While the pass defense wasn't horrendous last season, ranking 29th nationally, that's because the Panthers were 107th in rushing defense. But Thatcher believed that Pitt would be stronger in both areas this season with a tougher defensive line and finally some depth overall on defense.
"There's no question that we're much deeper up front, at tackle and on the ends, along with linebacker and the secondary,'' Pitt defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads said. "We're a inexperienced at linebacker, but we have a lot of talent. And in the secondary, with Mike, Eric and Kennard Cox, leaders in the secondary, we should be much better there as well.''
While Pitt's home schedule isn't the toughest in the country, it must go to Michigan State, Virginia, Rutgers, Louisville and West Virginia this fall. Does Thatcher believe the Panthers have what it takes to make a difference.
"It's going to be different, the camaraderie is a little different,'' Thatcher said. "People had a tougher offseason, and they got used to it, seeing how high-intensity we have to be to be a really good football team.
"So we'll see what happens when the season starts. But we definitely have the confidence that we can go into a couple of places and play hard and come out with a victory. I'm sure we're going to surprise a few teams this year.''
With Thatcher and several others finally healthy, Pitt's defense appears to be ready to make a statement this season.