CINCINNATI -- Morning, folks. Well, that certainly wasn't the way Pitt envisioned starting its final Big East campaign. George Winn ripped off a 58-yard touchdown run on Cincinnati's first offensive play, and the Bearcats never looked back. There were a few bright spots for Pitt, notably that Ray Graham looked at least well on his way to being back to his old self, but by and large, this game was almost the exact same story as Youngstown State. Porous run defense, poor tackling and some absolutely mind-boggling mental mistakes.
Here's a link to my recap from today's Post-Gazette. With that, let's move on to a position-by-position breakdown of the carnage from Nippert Stadium last night.
Quarterback: Might as well get this one out of the way first. Tino Sunseri was 24 of 37 for 278 yards, a touchdown and one pick. Those stats are somewhat misleading, though, as most of the yards (and the touchdown) came in the most garbagey of garbage time. That said, I think those calling for Tino's head on a platter are sorely misled. Did he play well? Not by any stretch of the imagination. His clock management at the end of the first half was astoundingly bad, especially from a fifth-year senior and three-year starter. But if you were to create a list of things wrong with this team right now, poor quarterback play wouldn't be in the top five, maybe not even the top 10. He certainly missed some easy throws last night, and needs to get better at getting rid of the ball, but also had Bearcats defenders on him as soon as the ball was snapped thanks to some truly poor pass protection. As much as Pitt fans may not like to hear it, I don't think Sunseri is in any danger of losing his job any time soon.
Running backs: Here's one area where I thought Pitt actually played well. Graham looked at least on the road back to being what he was pre-injury (I think he would've taken that 50-yard run to the house last year), and Rushel Shell and Isaac Bennett averaged 3.9 and 4.8 yards per carry, respectively. Shell looked lost in pass protection, but that's no surprise for a true freshman who was never (and I emphasize never) asked to do any pass-blocking in high school. He'll get better in that area.
Wide receivers: Tough to really assess this group, as only Devin Street and Mike Shanahan registered more than two receptions last night. Each had five, and I thought Street responded nicely after a rough game in the opener. The passing game in general was thrown so off-sync by Cincinnati's pass rush, it was tough for any receiver to get in a rhythm. This receiving corps desperately needs guys like Cameron Saddler (1 catch, 11 yds) and Ronald Jones (1 drop late) to step up and become factors in the slot.
Tight ends: Not much to say here. Hubie Graham had one catch for eight yards, and Drew Carswell had two catches and the late touchdown. Graham went down with an apparent shoulder injury in the second half, but returned to the game. Carswell was the intended receiver on Sunseri's interception, and should shoulder a bit of the blame for not being more aggressive and going up to get that ball. It was a poor throw into coverage, but a big target like Carswell (6-4, 220 lbs) needs to at least go try and break that up.
Offensive line: Well, if you're a glass-half-full type of person, you could say that they paved the way for 191 yards on the ground. Unfortunately, that's about it. Fifty of those yards came on Graham's scamper, a play were he had to dance around defenders in the backfield. In fact, on most of Pitt's long runs, the back had to dodge guys in the backfield. There were very few running plays were the back had a huge hole and hit it. The pass protection was even worse. Sunseri was sacked six times, and pressured dozens more. It seemed like any time the Bearcats rushed more than three guys, they got immediate pressure, and that's just unacceptable. On some plays, notably the forced fumble, the defender just ran right around the offensive line completely untouched. If the pass protection doesn't improve, it won't matter who's playing quarterback for Pitt.
Defensive line: This was supposed to be the area helped most by the guys returning from suspension, and injury in the case of T.J. Clemmings. Tyrone Ezell and Clemmings made their first career starts, combining for seven tackles. Unfortunately, the touchdown run on the first play was just a sign of things to come. Once again, the defense was gouged for 259 yards rushing, and it seemed like the Cincinnati offensive line got a solid 2-3 yards of push before the running back was touched (if he was at all). The defensive line actually did a good job containing Cincinnati quarterback Munchie Legaux early on, but in the second and third quarters he ripped off runs of 26, 22 and 77 yards. The defensive ends fail to set an edge, allowing Legaux to get outside the pocket and from there it was off to the races. Playing a quarterback with the running ability of Legaux, especially one who has struggled with his accuracy, it's more important to keep him from breaking long runs than it is trying to get the sack. This was also another game where Aaron Donald virtually disappeared. He's facing double-teams on almost every play, but at some point he needs to show that he's the player people thought he was coming into the season
Linebackers: I thought Shane Gordon probably had the best game of any Pitt defender. He racked up seven tackles and had Pitt's lone sack of Legaux. In the second quarter, he was just a split-section of reaction time away from an interception that very well could have gone for a touchdown. Hard to say that would have completely swung the game, but a jolt of confidence and momentum for Pitt at that point wouldn't have been a bad thing.
Secondary: Cornerback K'Waun Williams made the trip to Cincinnati, and the participation report says he played, but I don't recall seeing him out there at all. I'll have to go back and see where/if he actually got in the game. On most plays, it was Lafayette Pitts and Cullen Christian. I'm not sure what Pitt was doing with its safety rotation last night. Jarred Holley and Jason Hendricks started and played virtually the whole game. Ray Vinopal and Andrew Taglianetti, the starters last week, worked in mostly on special teams. Not sure why that is, you'd think that the staff would want to take advantage of its depth at that position and rotate guys in to keep them fresh. It'll certainly be a position to watch as far as who plays against Virginia Tech next week.
Special teams: Pretty good stuff here, actually. Matt Yoklic had two punts downed inside the 1-yard line (not that it mattered in the long run, but hey! Small victories!) and Kevin Harper made his only field goal, a 37-yard attempt. Cameron Saddler, Lafayette Pitts and Brendon Felder all returned kickoffs, but none of them made particular waves.
Coaching: My colleague Ron Cook discusses Paul Chryst's coaching performance in his column in today's P-G. I liked that Chryst stuck to the running game, the only aspect of the offense that was working, after facing an early deficit rather than panicking and throwing every down. If Pitt didn't shoot itself in the foot twice in the red zone, it would have been a one-score game at halftime. But, they did shoot themselves in the foot. Chryst certainly deserves to shoulder some of the blame for what happened at the end of the first half, and he clearly didn't convey the importance of getting the ball out quickly to Sunseri emphatically enough. I don't get the two consecutive fade attempts to Street on the previous two passes, either. That's a throw Sunseri has struggled with, and, with a timeout left they had time for at least one running play from the 2-yard line. That timeout doesn't do you any good in the locker room during halftime.
Chryst said after the game that he thought he'd see some improvement when he went back and watched this game tape, but I'm sure he'll see plenty more that still needs to be fixed. The Panthers had just five days to get ready for this one, and now will have nine to get ready for Virginia Tech. They say teams usually improve the most betweens game one and game two. Can Pitt make that jump between game two and game three?
I'm almost afraid to ask, Pitt fans, but what are your thoughts?