Well, this will certainly be a lot more fun than my last post-game breakdown post, won't it?
Pitt finally put it together in all phases of the game Saturday, and soundly beat a pretty quality Virginia Tech team 35-17 in fairly dominating fashion. For as bad as Pitt looked in its first two games (and the Panthers looked pretty bad), that's how good they look Saturday.
Here's a link to my recap from Sunday's P-G. Now let's get to it...
Quarterback: Tino Sunseri played arugably the best game of his Pitt career Saturday. He looked poised and calm in the pocket, and completed 19 of 28 passes for 283 yards and two touchdowns. Sunseri showed he came to play early on, when on the first drive he found Devin Street and Drew Carswell for gains of 33 and 23 yards, respectively. Later in the quarter, he found Street again on a touchdown pass that had perfect touch and was just where it needed to be. On some other plays, Sunseri just let his receivers go up and make plays, which they did. Even the one interception wasn't totally Sunseri's fault, as it appeared that he and Street miscommunicated on what pattern Street was supposed to run. My colleague Ron Cook wrote about Sunseri for Sunday's P-G.
Sunseri also showed some toughness early in the fourth quarter when he suffered an apparent leg injury. He hobbled off the field and backup Trey Anderson started taking snaps and warming up on the sidelines. Sunseri didn't miss a play, though, and came back in to lead Pitt on a game-sealing touchdown drive that ended on his pass to Mike Shanahan. Despite showing up for the post-game interview session on crutches, Sunseri insisted he was "fine" and will be ready to go against Gardner-Webb this week.
Running backs: Welcome to college football, Rushel Shell. The former Hopewell star burst out with 157 yards on 23 carries (6.8 ypc). To put it in comparison, that's just 0.6 yards per carry less than he averaged last year...in high school. Shell showed a good burst through the line and, most impressively, wasn't afraid to get physical with Virginia Tech's defenders. Of course, the biggest test for freshmen is usually enduring the bumps and bruises of a 12-game season, so let's not start up the Heisman bandwagon quite yet (even though photo No. 15 in this slideshow is a pretty good pose). I wrote about Shell, and the running backs in general, in today's P-G.
And, of course, let's not forget about Ray Graham, who finished Saturday with 94 yards on 24 carries and, most importantly, got in the end zone three times. Graham's touchdown on Pitt's first drive was his first score since tearing his ACL last year. He added a receiving touchdown later in the game when he just burned a Virginia Tech linebacker on a wheel route out of the backfield. I think Graham's still a work-in-progress with regards to his knee, but all signs are positive so far.
Finally, Isaac Bennett worked mostly as a third-down/passing situations back Saturday, but Paul Chryst wouldn't commit to defined roles for any of the three backs in his press conference Monday. He said it really is a game-by-game thing in terms of finding the right mix in the offensive backfield.
Receivers: Like pretty much every position group, this was by far the receivers' best game of the young season. Shanahan and Street were the top two guys, with five and four catches, respectively. Ronald Jones also worked in for his first two catches of the season. When Sunseri needed someone to make a play, though, he usually went to Shanahan or Street. On third downs, Sunseri targeted Street four times, completing two (including a TD). He targeted Shanahan twice on third down, both late in the game, and only completed the one for a touchdown. Cameron Saddler actually finished the game with three third-down targets, but didn't register a catch (one of the targets worked out with a defensive pass interference call, though).
Tight ends: Regular starter Hubie Graham missed the game with an apparent shoulder injury suffereed against Cincinnati. Graham went back in after getting hurt against the Bearcats, but wasn't healthy enough to start Saturday. Carswell and freshman J.P. Holtz both started Saturday in a two-TE set (Holtz's first career start). Carswell finished with two catches for 27 yards (including the 23-yarder in the first quarter). Graham finished without a catch, but Chryst praised his play Monday. Later in the game, they were both a big part of the running game that ended any doubts of a Virginia Tech comeback.
Offensive line: This group, along with the defensive line, probably made the most improvement from week two to week three. They kept Sunseri upright, with the exception of second-quarter sack, and paved the way for 254 team rushing yards. Chris Jacobson spoke Monday about how much fun the line was having when he could start rolling like that, and center Ryan Turnley noted that he could tell the Hokie defense was getting tired when four- and five-yard gains from the first half were turning into 12- and 15-yard gains in the second half. Depth on the line is still a concern, and I thought they still looked fairly vulnerable to speed rushes off the edge, but overall not much to complain about from this unit.
Defensive line: Like the offensive line, this just didn't look like the same unit Pitt brought to Cincinnati last week. The linemen were getting pressure without even needing any help from blitzes, sacking Logan Thomas twice (one sack came from the line, the other from freshman defensive back Jamahl Pardner on a Thomas scramble).
"[Pressure] was something we hadn’t been getting," Chryst said on the Big East conference call Monday. "I think that’s key."
They also clogged up the middle of the line and refused to let Virginia Tech run the ball with any authority. The Hokies totaled just 59 rushing yards on 26 attempts, a paltry 2.3 per carry. Devin Cook got the start at defensive end in place of Bryan Murphy (who had just been named the starter this week, but was apparently banged up). He finished with five tackles, including two for loss. After two games of relative quiet, Aaron Donald also finally made his presence felt, blowing up a running play early in the fourth quarter for a loss of six.
Linebackers: Manny Williams got the start at will linebacker in place of Nicholas Grigsby, and finished with four tackles. He was also in pass coverage quite a bit, and had a solid game there. Shane Gordon, one of the few bright spots in the loss to Cincinnati, followed that up with another great game Saturday. He led the unit (and tied for the team lead) with six tackles. Two of those stops came in the fourth quarter on back-to-back 3rd-and-short and 4th-and-short plays that gave the Panthers a turnover on downs and swung momentum back in their favor.
Secondary: Cornerback K'Waun Williams returned to the starting lineup after missing the Cincinnati game. He started and racked up six tackles. Freshman cornerback Lafayette Pitts got burned, and missed a tackle, on Virginia Tech's lone offensive touchdown, an 85-yard pass from Thomas to Marcus Davis. Other than that one play, though, I thought Pitts had a pretty nice game. He had a nice breakup in one-on-one coverage on the outside on the drive following the touchdown. With Williams back, it looks like the defense will go back to more of the original plan, which was Williams on the boundary side and Pitts on the field side. Cullen Christian didn't get into Saturday's game, but I suspect we'll see some more of him moving forward.
At safety, Jason Hendricks obviously ruled the day with his two picks, and position-mate Jarred Holley added another. A couple of the picks were some pretty bad throws by Thomas, but the defenders still have to be there to take advantage of them. Andrew Taglianetti mixed in on defense a little bit more Saturday, playing mostly as a nickelback. Ray Vinopal was still mostly on special teams.
Special teams: If there was one negative in the win, it's that Kevin Harper missed his two field goal attempts, from 35 and 33 yards. He made a 26-yarder in the fourth quarter, but the play was negated by an offsides penalty on Virginia Tech, which allowed Pitt to go and score the game-clinching touchdown. Harper has been pretty inconsistent so far this season, but it hasn't really come back to bite Pitt yet. In a close game, though, this could be something to watch for.
Punter Matt Yoklic is showing that he deserved that scholarship Chryst gave him in the preseason. He averaged 45.0 yards a kick and pinned Virginia Tech inside its own 20 once.
The 94-yard punt return obviously wasn't good for Pitt, and that just seemed like a classic case of a kicker outkicking his coverage. The punt went 53 yards, and gave the Hokies plenty of time to set up their return blocking. The run was helped by a vicious block by Virginia Tech's Ronny Vandyke, which took out Shanahan and Eric Williams and sprung Kyshoen Jarrett the final 40 yards or so.
Coaching: This was a game where Chryst could really play to his strengths. With the early lead, he was able to rely heavily on the bruising running attack and dominate time of possession. Pitt's final touchdown drive (15 plays, 88 yards, 7:44) was a thing of beauty and salted the game away perfectly. In short, for one afternoon at least, Pitt looked like those Wisconsin teams Chryst helped lead to two consecutive Rose Bowls. He'll now have to figure out exactly how he wants to split carries between Shell and Graham, but that's something he's well-accustomed to dealing with given the crowded backfields he had with the Badgers.