Sunday News and Notes - Wrapping up the Cincinnati Game

Written by Paul Zeise on .

Here are the news and notes from the  Cincinnati game, a 26-23 loss by Pitt

My only comments about the game is this – Pitt lost this game because it flinched, again.

Once again, the Panthers had a chance to be great and were too afraid to reach out and embrace that. I know this sounds way over the top but I really believe this team is conditioned to believe it is supposed to lose close games and tight games and until that mentality is changed, until that culture of “woe is us, we’re destined to lose” is changed this will continue to happen.

I’ll quote Uconn women’s coach Geno Auriemma here – “It is easy to be good, for the most part all you have to do is show up. It is hard to be great and it is even harder to find players who truly want to be great.”

Bottom line – Pitt’s mediocrity over the past few years has become a self-fulfilling prophecy and this team puckers up every single time it has a chance to do something special – like finish a win at Iowa, like finish a win against Notre Dame, like finish a win against Utah and like finishing a win against Cincinnati.

If Pitt had reached out and finished those games, the Panthers would be 8-1 and in first place in the Big East and likely ranked -- and considering they were right there to win those games and couldn’t so the idea that they were over matched and out manned is not accurate by any measure -  instead they are 4-5 and not only are they not going to win the Big East, they are a longshot to even get to a bowl game at this point.

Think about it – they need to get to six wins to be bowl eligible and seven to guarantee themselves a bowl. They play at Louisville, a team that is suddenly looking like a juggernaut, at West Virginia, a dangerous team always, and at home against Syracuse, the most winnable of the three but not a guarantee by any stretch.

You have to win games, you can’t blink, you have to want to be great and Pitt right now has a locker room full of too many guys who don’t believe they deserve better than what they’ve gotten and until that culture of accepting mediocrity is truly changed this will continue to happen. I know, I know, the coach is saying it has, well, there is plenty of evidence to the contrary and that process takes more than just a few slick marketing campaigns to change.

You need to an infusion of new blood and you need to start winning some of these games down the stretch in order to show you can.

I really do believe that Todd Graham will change this culture, but he is fighting an uphill battle in so many ways on so many fronts and it is going to take a year or two before that happens.

OK, here are the News and Notes ….

**  Lucas Nix (knee) did not play again for the fourth game in a row and now it is fair to begin to wonder if he is going to play again. Certainly, there is nothing on the line any more other than trying to get to Birmingham or New York City or something like that.  And Nix has an NFL career to think about and I’m sure he is getting some advice from somewhere and that advice is “if your knee isn’t 100 percent healthy, don’t risk playing” and who can blame him for listening? Unfortunately, that’s the big picture in all of these situations – a senior has a career to consider and sometimes, that has to take precedence over anything else.  

The key is this – the Pitt doctors say one thing and younger players usually accept that without any question because, well, they are still young and idealistic. The seniors and veterans who have an NFL future, they go get their own doctor’s opinion and they should. Greg Romeus did it, Jabaal Sheard did it and several others did it last year and I’m assuming Nix has done the same thing.

And the difference between independent, private doctors and Pitt’s doctors (or any team doctors) is the standard of what constitutes being healthy and able to play. Private doctors are far more cautious and conservative and that’s what leads to these situations – where one party is saying a guy is healthy enough to play but the guy still isn’t playing.

I know it can be frustrating, but by the same token, at the end of the day, Nix has to do what is best for Nix as do all of these players who may have a shot to be an NFL player some day.

** The starting line without Nix was Greg Gaskins-Juantez Hollins-Ryan Turnley-Ryan Schlieper-Jordan Gibbs. I don’t think the unit was great, but it played well enough to give the offense a chance to make some plays and it played well enough to give Pitt a chance to win. And I’ll say this – what that group lacks in talent, they seem to make up for in grit, heart, character – they do fight and battle and that’s been the case all year with this group, that has been mostly patchwork because of injuries. There are a lot of reasons Pitt lost this game – the offensive line isn’t one of them. Tino Sunseri was sacked three times and two of them were his fault, not the fault of the offensive line.

** As expected it was freshman tailback Isaac Bennett who got his redshirt broken and played in the game. I thought as debuts went, he was fine. He didn’t do anything special but he also didn’t have any critical mistakes and he ran the ball fairly well – 6 times for 26 yards (4.3 ypc). I also thought Zach Brown did fairly well as he ran 11 times for 54 yards (4.9 ypc) but my only question is this – why did he get only 11 carries? Interestingly, Tino Sunseri was the leading rusher (when adjusted for sacks, he ran 13 times for 90 yards, which is pretty impressive) and he seems to be developing that part of his game nicely.

** Kevin Harper set a Heinz Field record with a 52-yard field goal in the first quarter. That actually is the longest field goal kicked in a collegiate game at Heinz Field and it tied Jeff Reed’s overall record as he kicked a 52-yarder against Atlanta last year. Harper did miss a 50-yarder at the end of the game wide right but Graham said it was a bad snap and that threw off the hold and so it wasn’t completely Harper’s fault. What I like about Harper is this  - he didn’t want to hear any of that stuff about the hold and snap “if they get it down, it is my responsibility to make it” he said.

I asked Graham why he didn't opt for the 53-yard field goal attempt (the ball was on the 36) given that Harper had made it from 52 and he said he felt it was too far and he wanted to play the percentages and go for it - though, again, he chose a rather low percentage throw to try and execute on fourth down.

** Sunseri again had two killer turnovers and both were a direct result of the same thing that has hurt him all year - he is trying too hard to make plays that aren't there to be made. The first, a fumble, was a result of him needlessly trying to extend a run on third down as he had already secured the first down. The second should have been a touchdown and would have been had he taken what the defense was giving him - a circle route with Zach Brown wide open in the flat. Instead, he tried to jam one into double coverage and it was intercepted. And Todd Graham's increased frustration level with Sunseri is evident in this - usually Graham has lots to say about every subject but when he was asked about Sunseri's two turnovers he said simply "it is a team game" and moved on. He just didn't want to get into it and you can tell.

All year Graham's been harping on Sunseri to take what the defense is giving, keep it simple and don't try to do too much and all year Sunseri has been forcing things, trying too hard to make things happen and getting greedy and it has led to big mistakes. And until he just trusts the offense and does indeed keep it simple, these things will continue to happen.


** Mike Shanahan was put back to field punts, which I thought was a curious choice, but Shanahan does have great hands so why not. Todd Graham said on his radio interview that Ronald Jones had dropped a few during the week and so they were nervous about putting him back there and also, because Jones was the Wildcat quarterback and played an increased role in the offense, they didn’t want to risk injury to Jones.

Still, with the game on the line and Pitt needing a play on that final Cincinnati punt – I’m not sure I wouldn’t have had Jones back there in the hopes that he rips off a nice long return. Jones had a nice game – he ran twice for 13 yards and caught three passes for 28 yards, but his role needs to be expanded as I think he is a playmaker.

** Devin Street showed up in a big way – he had a career-high eight receptions for 118 yards. He had some big catches, some tough catches and finally showed up as the Panthers go-to guy. This is the kind of game he is capable of having every week and once he realizes that and believes that, he is going to be a star. And this offense desperately needs him to be the guy and coaches have challenged him to be the guy. Let’s hope for his sake that this was the game that gets him going because he has the ability to carry this offense.

** That being said – the fourth down play on the second-to-last drive was a disaster waiting to happen. It was supposed to be a back shoulder throw – meaning Street runs what looks like a go route but stops on a dime and catches a pass on the sidelines. But Sunseri threw the ball poorly and it was behind him and Street never had a chance.  My question here is – why such a low percentage play, particularly given the quarterback’s deficiencies in making those kinds of pin point passes, with the game on the line?

** We saw some very interesting personnel decisions. Remember Brendan Carozzoni and his big debut last week against Connecticut? Well, he actually did start this game, then was buried and we never heard from him again and he didn’t catch a pass. Tristan Roberts, who had played a lot the past few weeks, was nowhere to be found again. LaQuentin Smith, however, who had been buried for a few weeks, played a lot and actually a big play – a sack. Brandon Ifill? I don’t know that he played more than five or six snaps after playing well. And where was Drew Carswell? Darius Patton got a little more playing time and caught a pass and Brandon Lindsey is back to being a down lineman apparently. Oh, and Aaron Donald – yes that Aaron Donald – was one of the up men on the kick-off return team but he also made his first career start on the defensive line.

I think it is great that there is open competition for jobs every week and that nobody is able to feel comfortable but I’ve never seen so much lineup shuffling and plugging and pulling by coaches in my life. The rotations of players seem to be week to week, which is good in theory, but you wonder if this is helping the team build continuity and chemistry.

** Max Gruder is a real shade tree and he gets 38 hot when Pitt loses, but he is also all of these – a warrior, a tough guy, the ultimate team player, a stand-up guy, a guy Pitt fans should embrace as the standard for what they are looking for in student-athletes to look up to and admire.

I know he’s had some ups and downs but nobody has worked harder than him, very few players care more than he does and he is truly the kind of team-first guy that teams need to win.

Consider he broke a bone in his hand on the first play of the Connecticut game and finished the game even though his hand swelled up to the size of a cantaloupe or something. “I ain’t coming out of a game for anything” was exactly what he said when I asked him why he didn’t get it looked at during the game.

So fast forward to this week and if you noticed he had a big cast on his hand – that’s because the bone was fractured in a way that he can’t move his fingers or it will risk fracturing the bone even more. In other words, he had a cast on his hand that covered his fingers in basically a big ball. He said it took a little getting used to but once he figured out how to wrap up, he was able to tackle. Now, that’s significant because he missed the tackle on the second play of the game when Isaiah Pead ran for 53 yards. He said he couldn’t wrap him up the right way because he hadn’t figured it out at that point but then didn’t make an excuse. “That’s a play, I have to make, that one is on me, bottom line,” Gruder said.

Like I said, a stand-up guy and a tough guy. Even if he is 38 hot and a shade tree…..

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