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Wrapping Up Rutgers, Looking Ahead to Louisville

Written by Paul Zeise on .

** What a day Saturday was for the Big East conference (well to be more accurate, Friday and Saturday), as we went into the weekend thinking West Virginia was the team to beat, Cincinnati was starting to get on a roll and Pitt was in danger of getting upset.....annd all that happened was Pitt won in blowout fashion and both West Virginia and Cincinnati looked horrible in losing at home to teams predicted to finish near the bottom of the conference. And that doesn't even include the train wreck that UConn appears to be right now. All of it right now is meaningless as there is way too much of the season left to go but isn't it amazing how things can change so quickly with a couple of good performances in a row. And while we're talking about this - the Louisvillle game looks much more difficult than it did even a few weeks ago as the Cardinals are playing tough, hard-nosed football these days. It is clear that Charlie Strong is changing the culture down there and that program is back on the right track. Now, Pitt has more talent than Louisville right now and the Panthers should win the game - especially at home - but don't be surprised if it is tougher than it has been the past few years.

** Jabaal Sheard said something that was very telling after the game when he was asked about how he as a senior and leader will make sure the team stays grounded despite having a little bit of success. He said "hopefully we won't get a big head and will stay humble and stay hungry and continue to work hard." I don't like to read too much into any one thing any of these players or coaches say, but that would suggest one of the problems this team had early was they believed their headlines and press clippings. Dion Lewis said something similar last week when he was asked about what the difference has been with him this year and last year as has some other players. It will be interesting to see how this team handles a little bit of prosperity. They obviously didn't do a good job of it earlier in this season. But they did show, once they were 2-3, that they handled adversity better. Sheard said he'd rather the Panthers remain underdogs and under the radar but he knows if they continue to win they'll be the team to beat. Let's see how this team responds to feeling good about itself over the next game or two. That will be a true test of the leadership and character of this team.

** One statistic that is a little bit eye-opening from Saturday's game and one I think illustrates an area Tino Sunseri can still improve - was that Henry Hynoski led the team with seven receptions (for 51 yards). That is a result of two things - Hynoski has been Tino Sunseri's safety/checkdown receiver and also they have run some play-action passes to get Hynoski in space. I think it is good to get Hynoski the ball but I'm wondering if Sunseri maybe is checking down a little too much - and the fact that Hynoski had seven catches, which is the combined total of Mike Shanahan, Devin Street and Mike Cruz combined would suggest this - and passing on some opportunities to make bigger plays. A great example of this came on second-and-goal from the Rutgers 6 with the Panthers trailing 7-0. Sunseri had Mike Cruz in the back of the endzone wide open had he just let the play develop and he had the time to do that but instead he opted to dump the ball to Hynoski for a 3-yard gain. Pitt scored on the next play - Sunseri to Cruz - so it didn't matter in the end, but that second down play is an example of a play that, likely a year from now or maybe even a few weeks from now, Sunseri is experinced enough to make. I also found it a little puzzling that on at least three occassions, Ray Graham was held in the backfield to block while Hynoski was out running a pass route. I would think it should be the other way around, especially given the skill set of both players. Again, this offense and quarterback is going to constantly evolve and I get it - Rutgers brought a lot of pressure and Sunseri was trying to avoid sacks - but it will be fun to watch this offense once he is comfortable enough to give four or five of those throws to guys like Street, Graham and Baldwin. Once that happens, this offense could become dominant. As it is, Sunseri has really taken some very good strides and has shown some improvement each week and that's all you can ask for.

** One key injury to watch - Lucas Nix was knocked out of the game early in the second half with an undisclosed injury of some sort and was replaced with Greg Gaskins. Remember him? He actually played reasonably well all things considered but obviously, Nix moving to right guard is a big part of this team's improvement as well. Dave Wannstedt seemed to think it was a minor injury that Nix should recover from quickly but the last time we heard that line a guy ended up needing back surgery so we will just play it by ear until we know for sure one way or the other.

** One thing I'm sure Pitt fans were very glad to see was this -- Jon Baldwin and Dion Lewis - looked a lot more like last year's version than this year's version. The two combined for 282 yards and two touchdowns, which is a lot closer to what we had in mind for them on a weekly basis when the season began. Yeah, I know, I heard all of the players say all the right things about how many "playmakers" the team has and how a lot of guys are capable of making plays but that's nonsense - you need to have star power to become a dominant offense and these two guys are clearly stars, as is Ray Graham. The other guys are all important, all have a role and all have proven they can make some plays, but these three are the guys who need to have the ball in their hands the most and these three are the guys who transform Pitt from an ordinary offense to an extraordinary offense. I'll say this - the Panthers won't win the Big East without these three guys leading the way and playing like stars down the stretch.

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