Sunday News and Notes, Wrapping up Pitt-Rutgers

Written by Paul Zeise on .

A day later, this loss doesn’t look any better for Pitt and as we look back it, it may even look worse, if that is possible.

Rutgers is not a good team and they pounded the Panthers, which makes me further wonder how good South Florida really is. And given the egg that Iowa, which beat Pitt, laid yesterday against Penn State, that leads me to further question how good Pitt really is.

I do know this – the Panthers have a lot further to go than anybody could have imagined and until the offensive line gets better, the quarterback becomes more consistent and the receivers become more of a factor, this team is going to continue to struggle and will lose games in this manner.

A few years ago, I compiled a list of the ten worst losses by the Panthers since I’ve covered the team and frankly, there would be four additions to this list from the past two years – Connecticut (an inexcusable loss) and West Virginia (the Panthers quit, which is embarrassing on many fronts) last year and now Iowa (you blow a 21-point lead to THAT offense?) and now Rutgers (you just got stomped by one of the worst offensive teams in the country?) .

That is two horrendous losses in a four-game stretch, which is not a good trend.

Todd Graham, to his credit, took full responsibility for the loss and that’s good because there was plenty of blame to be spread around.

“It is my job to get our team ready and the responsibility for every single thing that goes right here on me,Graham said. “We didn’t have our guys ready to play. There are no excuses, we just didn’t come out to play today and we got beat. We absolutely played our worst game today and that is embarrassing to me and we have to go to work to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”

At any rate, the Panthers still have a lot of season left, though if they don’t fix some of these issues that keep cropping up, there are going to be a lot of long days.

Here are some news, notes and quotes from the game:

** It was clear to me in talking to the players and after listening to Todd Graham in the postgame news conference that the Panthers simply were not prepared to play this game.

I tweeted during the game that the Scarlet Knights were playing much harder and looked much hungrier than the Panthers and nothing I heard in the postgame disputed that.

Rutgers simply wanted to win the game more than Pitt did, had a much better plan than Pitt did and played much better and with far more passion and intensity than Pitt did.

And that is shocking to me because everybody knows if you are going to beat Rutgers, you need to match their intensity. I don’t think Greg Schiano is a great coach, I think his teams are much closer to mediocre than good, but the one thing he has consistently done is gotten that team to play hard every week.

So if you are going to beat them, you better come to play hard, and given that Pitt’s players have faced the Scarlet Knights every year, I’m not sure why they were surprised by this. I’m not saying Pitt didn’t play hard, I’m saying they didn’t play with an edge and they didn’t match the intensity and passion of Rutgers.

Jarred Holley said it best, “you have to give Rutgers credit, they came ready to play today and we didn’t.”

Pitt can still have a successful season, go to a bowl game and build a foundation for the future, but if they learned anything yesterday from the Scarlet Knights they should listen to the words of Dalton from the movie “Road House” (which I watched in the hotel the day before the game) when he is advising the bouncers at the Double Deuce on how to do their jobs…..

“Never underestimate your opponent, expect the unexpected….,
” he said, then he went out the first night and demonstrated this concept when broke a table with the head of some guy who pulled a knife on the bouncer…..

Words to live by - I am not saying Pitt took Rutgers lightly, but the Panthers certainly didn't play with the sense of urgency they needed.

**  Beyond the Panthers looking like a team who wasn’t ready to play, the other surprising thing was the number of quotes which seemed to indicate that they were caught off guard by how much Rutgers blitzed.

That was a little shocking to me given that Schiano’s defense is 100 percent about pressure and forcing mistakes and turnovers.

Here is a sample:

“I want to give credit to Rutgers, they came out playing hard and it was something that we saw on film,” Ray Graham said.They came out ready. They hit us with a lot of blitzes that caught us off guard and we had a hard time picking it up.”

“One thing they did was bring guys from all different angles so it was hard for us to get a key on who was coming and who was not,”
Tino Sunseri said. “They were getting to us and we couldn’t make it hurt by getting the ball out to our playmakers.”

And then here is the mind boggling quote of the week….

“We saw a little different things, we didn’t expect them to blitz as much [as they did],”
Devin Street said. “I guess we didn’t adjust to it. They played better than us. We expected them to blitz, but they were coming every play.”

Pitt didn’t expect the Scarlet Knights to blitz as much as they did? Really?

That’s sort of amazing, to be honest, but it does go to show how important the chess match between coaches is from week to week.

** The lone exception among the players when it came to discussing the offensive game plan was center Ryan Turnley who said Pitt knew what was coming, the Panthers just couldn’t stop it:

“I think we made the right calls, they just beat us,Turnley said. “Nothing surprised us with their defensive package, we just have to be able to pick it up. It wasn’t that confusing, they just bring a lot of people.”

** I will say this – as horrendous as Rutgers offense is – and believe me it is bad – the fact that the Scarlet Knights are 4-1 speaks volumes as to how good the Scarlet Knights defense and special teams are. Greg Schiano is calling the plays on defense again and the blitz packages he has is impressive as is how much he mixes things up and disguises things and they are really fun to watch.

It is a whole different level of bringing pressure as there were plays I counted as many as eight guys rushing but what it even more impressive is when they’d line up with ten guys on the line of scrimmage – and only three would come or two would come and the rest would drop in coverage.  You gotta give him a lot of credit as this defense – like I wrote all last week – is something that is impressive and something the Panthers won’t see anything like again.

And the team played to their strengths – the freshman quarterback, Gary Nova, was never put in a bad spot, the team never faced a short field and they were content to let Pitt make mistakes and the Panthers complied.

** There were two key moments in the game.

The first came when Pitt was trailing 6-3 and Todd Graham put Trey Anderson into the game. Anderson directed a three-and-out (one of 11 three-and-outs on the day, by the way) on his first drive, then he came out for his second drive and he threw the interception that gave Rutgers the ball in the redzone.

A couple of plays later Rutgers scored a touchdown and took a 13-3 lead.

Graham said the offense needed a spark and he looked to Anderson to provide it.

“We were trying to get some rhythm,” he said. “We were trying to get a spark, make something happen. It actually didn’t work very well because he came in and turned the football over. Our deal was we were struggling to do anything, to get anything going.”

That is true, but until that interception, it was still only a three-point game and the Panthers were only one big play away from taking a lead. That interception changed the dynamics of the game for both teams, and dramatically, I might add.

The second key moment came after Ray Graham scored to pull Pitt back to within 20-10. Pitt kicked off and finally had a little momentum then Jeremy Deering returned the kick-off 73 yards to the Panthers 14.

I tweeted at that point that a long kick-off return after an important Pitt score had a familiar ring to it – think Cincinnati in 2009, Connecticut last year. The lone difference with this one is that the returner only got to the 14 as opposed to scoring but it might as well have been a touchdown because it was clear Rutgers had regained the momentum.

And at that point, it was game over.

You could see the defense was deflated when they took the field (as opposed to being pumped up, as they probably would have been had they taken the field with a chance) and Rutgers ran three times, basically right up the gut, and scored the touchdown to make it 27-10.

** If you want to look at a statistic that tells a lot of the story here is a key one – starting field position.

Pitt’s drives, on average, started at the Panthers 22, Rutgers drives, on average, started on the Scarlet Knights 44. That speaks volumes about the Scarlet Knights special teams, but it also speaks volumes about how patient Rutgers offense was and how the Scarlet Knights did not force things and turn the ball over and put their defense on short fields.

Pitt had nine drives start inside its own 20 and none that began in Rutgers territory. Rutgers had five drives that began in Pitt territory, including two that began inside the Panthers 20.

That’s why beyond getting caught in a blitz on the long screen pass, the defense actually played reasonably well. They were put in horrible positions the entire game.

If you look at Rutgers 34 points – seven were a result of a pick six, seven more came courtesy of an 18-yard drive after Anderson’s interception and seven came on a 14-yard drive after the long kick-off return. Three more came on a 5-yard drive after the Scarlet Knights took over at Pitt’s 38 after a good punt return.

That is 24 points – and seven more came, like I just wrote, on a third-and-nine play when they caught the Panthers in an all-out blitz with a screen pass that went for 60 yards.

Rutgers really only had one scoring drive – they went 6-plays and 34 yards for the other field goal.

That is not to say that Pitt’s defense was great – and this thing where the Panthers seem to give up a big play once or twice a game has to stop – but the defense was put in horrible situations all day long by the offense and special teams (though Matt Yoklic had an excellent day punting the ball). That underscores the importance of protecting the football and not putting your defense in bad spots.

Frank Cignetti’s pro-style offense may be boring, but he did a good job of keeping it boring and simple enough that the freshman quarterback didn’t make any killer mistakes and that was the difference in the game.

Pitt made mistakes on offense that led to Rutgers points, the Scarlet Knights did not.

** I’ve seen a lot of things in my time covering Pitt but even I have never seen a sequence of plays where the same player got penalized for offensive pass interference twice in a row and then on the next play, the quarterback got penalized for an illegal forward pass. And then a few sequences later Pitt got penalized for having two guys on the field wearing the same number. Graham said he wasn’t sure what the interference penalties were for but again, he took responsibility for all of the penalties and talked about how the Panthers need to get back to playing disciplined football.

Pitt had nine penalties – could have been 12 but three were declined – and just looked like a team that was completely out of sync the entire game.

** Tino Sunseri was 14 of 28 for 127 yards and three interceptions. He clearly had his worst game, I thought, but for the first time, he deserves a bit of a pass. If you weren’t at the game, you can’t fully appreciate just how fast Rutgers was coming at him and more importantly, how often he got hit. And it wasn’t just getting hit – it was taking big shots and being really slow to try and get up.  Twice I thought – no way is he getting up, but to his credit he did.

Again, he was a part of the problem, but he wasn’t the Panthers biggest problem in this game and he really didn’t have much of a chance to make things happen and a few times he did and his receivers didn’t help him out. The one thing I will say is this – Hubie Graham and Mike Shanahan are Pitt’s two most reliable receivers and they combined for two catches for six yards. These are guys who run good routes, know how to get open and catch the ball when you throw it to them.

Yet, in a game when the Panthers desperately needed some positive plays – any positive plays – they were invisible. That’s just not good game management by a quarterback and an offense. Obviously Ray Graham is your explosive, big-play guy and you want to get him as many touches as possible but Pitt doesn’t have a big-play receiver right now so it needs to lean on its two most reliable players to help the passing game along.

Sunseri has to get better, but he needs some help and I don’t think the receivers or offensive line have helped him as much as they need to. Yes, he hasn’t been great, but as we’ve seen he is still the team’s best option and they need to somehow find a way to make this work.

**  Ray Graham was the lone bright spot – again – as he rushed 24 times for 165 yards and a touchdown and averaged 6.9 yards a carry against a very good defense (and with almost no help from the passing game). He is clearly this team’s best player and he is also one of the few guys who I think can look in the mirror today and know that he gave everything he had and left it all on the field. Holley is another one. Max Gruder is another one. Andrew Taglianetti is another one There were a few others who can look in the mirror and know they gave all they had, but until Pitt gets to the point where all 85 guys show up every week and play with the passion and intensity and will-to-win of Ray Graham, they will be an inconsistent team. Graham, who took as many big hits as Sunseri did, brings it every week, there is no disputing that.

** Two key injuries hurt Pitt – Lucas Nix (knee) didn’t play and was replaced by Ryan Schlieper (who made his first start and likely said to himself “these Scarlet Knights are a little faster than anything I ever saw from Seneca Valley and Butler…..”) and Todd Thomas had some undisclosed injury and didn’t play, either. Schlieper was put in a tough situation as this is probably the worst defense for an offensive lineman making his first start to face. But he made the most of it and did the best he could do.

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