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Wednesday News and Notes - Maine Game Good, Bad and Ugly

Written by Paul Zeise on .

Here are some things to feast on as Pitt moves forward towards its first real test - Saturday at Iowa.

But first, don't forget tomorrow (Thursday at noon) to join me with our weekly Pitt chat to preview the game and also tomorrow night (Thursday) at 10:35 on CW-15 join Bob Pompeani and me for the weekly "Pitt Edition of the Subway Nightly Sports Call" We will discuss all things Pitt and take your phone calls and answer as many e-mails ( This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. ) as can as well.

Now, here are the daily notes......

**  The Panthers have made some changes to their linebacker group but this week it will be very interesting to see how they line up and defend a traditional power offense like Iowa. Freshman Ejuan Price is now officially the starting panther linebacker (a move that really began to happen last week but was made official this week) and Brandon Lindsey is now a starting defensive end. What will be interesting to watch is this – how do the Panthers defend the Hawkeyes, who have a big, physical offensive line and often line up with two (and sometimes three) tight ends and a fullback? I asked Todd Graham if the way the Panthers will counter that is putting a fourth defensive lineman on the field and he, not surprisingly, didn’t really answer the question but he did give us some hints as to what we may see. He said Pitt will have to obviously match some numbers so that could mean we could see a lot of a “5-2” looks with Price and Lindsey (sometimes with his hand on the ground, other times not) both on the field along with three down lineman and two inside linebackers. That essentially will be a 4-3 as Price is probably more linebacker than defensive end but it could be an interesting chess match here and frankly, if you keep an eye on this matchup it will give you a good idea of the versatility of the defense. This is going to be a challenge, but I don’t think, like some others, that Pitt will be overmatched by Iowa provided Chas Alecxih, Myles Caragein, Aaron Donald and company all bring it like the usually do.  One other guy who figures to be in the mix a little more is LaQuentin Smith, who has played both at the panther and some on the inside. We asked him Tuesday what his actual position is and he said “wherever the coaches need me” so I’d expect to see him used in some creative ways as well.

** I don’t know if Anthony Gonzalez is going to play or not this week (if I had a dollar for every time a coach said a guy was going to play then never got in the game over the past 12 years I would be retired by now, so I never hold my breath about these things) but Todd Graham said he will. Gonzalez was suspended for the first two-games of the season for an incident involving what Jim Rome would call “the hippy lettuce.” But he is reinstated now and frankly, from what we saw of him during training camp, he needs to be on the field because he is a talented kid. Really, his transition from quarterback to threeback was quick and easy and from the first day we saw him catching passes and blocking, I’ve been impressed with him. I don’t know if he will ever move back to quarterback (he, at least according to coaches is still a quarterback, he is just on loan to the H-back position for this season….) because I think he has found a position he could be a star at once he really learns some of the nuances of it. We knew he was a good athlete, figured he would be pretty good at catching the ball but what has surprised me the most was his blocking. I guess it shouldn’t surprise me because he was an excellent safety in high school and thus he was obviously a physical player but it still was a surprise. Again, I don’t know if he will sniff the field Saturday against Iowa but once he does get some playing time, I expect him to be able to make some plays to help the team win games.

** One of the key matchups this week will be Pitt’s offensive line against the front seven of Iowa. Surprisingly, when I did a radio spot in Iowa, the hosts who obviously cover the team were not overly impressed with the Hawkeyes front seven, but Todd Graham talked about the two defensive tackles, Mike Daniels and Dominic Alvis, and said they are both going to be a handful. Daniels is the main guy to watch as he is All-Big Ten material. But remember, the Panthers have Chris Jacobson – who Graham said after reviewing the films has been outstanding through two games – and Lucas Nix on the interior line and so it should be a great battle. The Hawkeyes also have an excellent (and speedy) outside linebacker in Christian Kirksey (he wears No. 20) and so the tackles will be tested as well. But this is a huge matchup for Pitt and it should have fans somewhat nervous considering what Maine’s defensive front seven just did to the Panthers (seven sacks and could have been more).

** The quarterback situation is what it is – Tino Sunseri has not been as good as we have seen him during practices and whatnot in the spring and summer. But there is no reason to panic yet. One, he was very good in camp so I don’t think he forgot how to play. And two, it is just going to take a little bit of time for this offense to really click. I don’t know that Sunseri will ever be a star but I do think he is good enough to get the job done and run this offense, he just needs to find some consistency. We’ve talked to Graham three times so far this week and I don’t get the idea that they are contemplating a change but I do know they are getting anxious to see some progress. Mike Norvell said Tuesday, though, that they aren’t unrealistic and they didn’t go into this thing blind – the did know it would take some time given the change in systems is so dramatic. But they also didn’t count on Sunseri missing so many easy throws and that is the main area he needs to improve. If he just hits some throws in each of the first two weeks, the offense is scoring a lot of points and nobody is concerned. I do think the one interesting thing that Todd Graham said at his news conference Monday about the quarterback situation is that there could be a package put in specifically for Trey Anderson. That doesn’t mean it will be used, but it does mean we could see maybe a series or two where he comes in the game.

** Quarterbacks coach Todd Dodge talked to us today and really was excellent at breaking down what it is they are looking for from this offense. And he said this (which should end the speculation about how short Sunseri’s leash is….) --- “There is way too much he is doing good in this offense to put him on a short leash, he is not on a short leash with us.” Dodge said he has to work on the consistency of his mechanics.  He said that he believes Sunseri has all the tools to be a very good spread offense quarterback but the inconsistency is holding him back. But looking at percentages and what the coaches have set as goals, he is not as bad as you may believe.  The coaches break it down  in three categories “bang home” plays, “intermediate plays” and “shots down the field”.

The bang home plays are the short safe passes, the screens, bootlegs, quick passes, the roll-outs, the waggles, etc., etc. and Dodge said they want to be 90 percent on those passes. The intermediate passes are the 10 to 15 yard passes and they want Susneri to be 65 percent on those passes. And then there are the shots down the field – he would like to get to the point where they take 10 of those in a game and he wants to see four of those ten each week.  Dodge said he was 11 of 12 against Buffalo in the “bang home” stuff and he was 15-of-19 on the intermediate throws against Maine.  “In 75 percent of our offense, he is being very accurate,” Dodge said.  Obviously, the one area where Sunseri hasn’t been good to this point is shots down the field (he is 0-for) but that isn’t completely his fault. He needs to improve in that area, in a hurry, but he needs help as well.

** One thing that became abundantly clear today when defensive coordinator Keith Patterson spoke with us – and even when Graham talked about the defense – is that the linebackers are not getting the job done in pass coverage.  Both talked about the problems with the defense being the “underneath” coverage which is mostly on the linebackers. There are some coverages where the underneath stuff is the responsibility of the safeties or the nickleback, but for the most part the linebackers need to get better at coverage. “We have to become more active with our underneath coverage,” Patterson said. “And at linebacker, you have to be versatile and you have to be play and be involved in the pass coverage. We definitely can improve there.” Graham said some of that can be eliminated by tightening up things and getting the corners and linebackers up on the line of scrimmage pressing receivers. Graham said he has been happy with Jarred Holley and the two corners, for the most part, but needs to see more consistency from Jason Hendricks.

** Here is something about Todd Graham that is think is admirable. He came in, saw an area that he knew he could upgrade immediately for recruiting purposes – the practice facility – ran his ideas past the administration and then, here is the good part, went out and raised funds to make it happen. I know, it sounds simple but in these days with all of the economic cutbacks and struggles, to have a coach get involved in raising funds for something for the football program – so people can’t whine that money is being diverted from the budget and contributing to tuition hikes – is refreshing. And here is the other thing – when the renovation is done and all of the stuff is in place, it is going to be really slick and will clearly be an unbelievable presentation. I’m not an interior designer like Chris Peak (he is a big fan of HGTV and even wants to some day open his own interior design company), so I can’t describe what is being done perfectly to you all but I’ll say this – when this place is finished it will be like mini Pitt football museum with lots of visuals and very tangible evidence of the rich history of the program. I don’t know if they are ever going to give public tours of this place (not likely), but if they do and you are a Pitt fan you should sign up for one because it will be pretty cool.

And finally, here is this week’s Good, Bad and Ugly (from the Maine game). As has always been the case, I don’t go crazy with it in these Division I-AA (oh, I'm sorry, FCS) games for a variety of reasons.

The Good


** Ray Graham is really, really good. I know, I’m a genius for coming up with that but here is what I mean –forget about the yards and touchdowns, this guy plays extremely hard and he runs extremely hard. I remember when he first came here people talked about Dion Lewis being the inside runner and Graham being more of the outside runner. Forget about that – Graham is as tough and hard-nosed as any back I’ve seen here and he gets those tough yards after contact. He just does not want to go down and as one guy on staff told me, a lot of his yards so far have been on his own talent and without much help. He really has carried the load for this team.

** As much as we like to talk about the passing yards this defense has given up, one thing that is clear to me is K’Waun Williams is going to be a very good corner. Actually, strike that – he already is a good corner and Jarred Holley is a very good safety. Willaims is physical, he is really good at coverage and he is still so young he is only going to improve. I thought he did a nice job in this game.

** Chris Jacobson is a machine. Despite all the sacks the Panthers gave up, I thought Jacobson played a great game and if you ever want to be entertained, isolate on him and watch him play. He is aggressive as any player I’ve seen and he really is a physical player. He knocked some guys around in this game.

** The freshmen – specifically Ejuan Price, Ronald Jones, Corey Davis – continued to show a lot of promise for the future. And in Price’s case, that future is now. He is a lot better than I thought he’d be at this point. Like the other linebackers, he needs to work on consistency but in his case it is about experience. And oh yeah, there is one more freshman worth noting – what you saw Saturday from Trey Anderson is what these coaches love about the guy. No fear, a little bit cocky out there on the field, walked right into the huddle like he owned it and then moved the team right down the field for a touchdown.

** Pat Bostick still has some of the worst tie knots I’ve seen, but he is excellent at breaking down games and film and he clearly knows what he is talking about. He is a star in the making as a color analyst and being as I get to see him work every day, he is extremely well prepared and detail oriented. The guy watches more film than some of the players.

** Chris Ferris had a much nicer tie on this week.

The Bad


** If Maine tight end Derek Buttles ever makes the College Football Hall of Fame, this game will be one of  the games he puts on his highlight tape because he put on a clinic (7 catches, 148 yards and a touchdown). Buttles is obviously a good player – but he isn’t Tony Gonzalez or Shannon Sharpe for goodness sakes. Yet he was open all over the field (see the above section about underneath coverage) and there were even other times they could have thrown it to him but didn’t. This is a big concern going into Iowa week for Pitt because Iowa will have two or three tight ends in the game most of the time and someone is going to have to cover at least one of them.

** Tino Sunseri was very inconsistent but that’s to be expected given that he is learning a new system. What isn’t expected are the turnovers. He has to protect the ball. The one play that irritated Todd Graham was the interception he threw in the endzone and really that was a play that sort of epitomizes the issues that Sunseri has had – he was trying to do too much. Period. Graham called it “freelancing” – not trusting the offense, just going out and trying to make something happen. The receiver he was throwing too (it might have been Shanahan) wasn’t even in the progression but Sunseri was scrambling around, saw him down the field and chucked it up. Those are the plays that he has to eliminate – coaches this week have talked a lot about Sunseri just trusting the offense. Don’t try to do anything but run the offense and let it work. The consistency will come with more experience in this offense.

** The offense gave up seven sacks. Yes, I know a lot it is on the offensive line not recognizing things quickly enough but the bottom line is the entire offense is at fault when there are that many breakdowns. Sunseri needs to get rid of the ball quicker, some of the receivers need to be where they are supposed to be more quickly and sometimes the running back needs to pick up a guy running free as well. So it is easy to pick on the offensive line, that unit needs to get better in a hurry, but you don’t give up seven sacks against a I-AA team unless there are a whole lot of issues beyond just the offensive line.

The Ugly

** Sunseri took one of the worst sacks I have ever seen on one play when he ran straight to the sidelines after the play broke down and then ran out of bounds with the ball. Once he gets outside the tackles he has to throw that thing away in that situation. There is no reason to take a loss there.

** I believe some day soon Kevin Harper will be in The Good section for booting a 60-yarder or something but right now, he is struggling. And while he did make two field goals against Maine, you can’t miss a 39-yarder and an extra point. I’m not down on the field so I can’t speak to the entire operation (i.e. maybe there have been some bad snaps or holds) but he has to get more consistent than he’s been.

** I’m wondering if Pitt’s defense thought that this was a hockey game (it is possible, Maine is known for having a very good hockey program) and thus it was over at the end of three periods. I don’t know if that is the case or not, but Maine was able to move the ball way too easy the last ten minutes of that game. There is no excuse for that. The I-A team is supposed to be the team that wears down the I-AA team but it looked the opposite in this game. Pitt has to do a better job of finishing the game this week.

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