Happy Monday, folks. Pitt rolled into its bye week in impressive fashion this weekend, pounding Gardner-Webb 55-10. Yes, Gardner-Webb is a I-AA team, and a pretty bad one at that. Still, you can only play the team that's out there on the field with you, and the Panthers took care of business and thoroughly dominated an overmatched opponent.
It really has been a tale of two seasons for Pitt so far, with the first two games and the last two. I think the bye week actually comes at a pretty good time for this team. Depth has always been a bit of a concern, and they can use the week off to get healthy, especially along the defensive line (Aaron Donald, in particular).
Here's a link to my game story from Sunday's P-G, and here's today's follow-up about the offense's record-setting pace in the last two games. With that said, let's move on to the breakdown...
Quarterback: Like with pretty much every positional grouping, you have to consider the opponent, but Tino Sunseri looked mighty impressive for the second consecutive game. The big question after Virginia Tech was whether or not he'd be able to keep it going. Sunseri had shown some flashes before, but seemed to have trouble sustaining it. If Gardner-Webb was any indication, Sunseri could be poised for a bit of a breakout season. He was 18 of 24 with 344 yards and three touchdowns Saturday. Sunseri was especially accurate on his deep balls against the Runnin' Bulldogs, with 11 completions for 15 yards or more. We'll see over the next few weeks if he can keep it rolling against Big East foes, but Saturday was a good sign that, if he has time to throw and receivers get open, Sunseri can make the throws he needs to.
We also saw backup Trey Anderson for a couple of series at the end, and he completed both of his pass attempts for 53 yards. This locks in what pretty much everyone assumed by now: Even though Chad Voytik was running with the second team for pretty much all of training camp, he'll redshirt this year barring something crazy happening.
Running back: Ray Graham finally had his first "Ray Graham" run of the season, a 78-yard sprint in the first quarter that put the Panthers up 7-0. Graham said he wasn't even thinking about his knee while he was taking off on the long run, which is definitely a good sign. I still don't think Graham is totally back to 100 percent yet, but breaking a long run like that is another step in the process of getting back to where he was pre-ACL surgery. He finished Saturday with 94 yards on eight carries and the one touchdown.
Freshman Rushel Shell actually got the most carries against Gardner-Webb, but looked a step slower than he did in his breakout game against Virginia Tech. He finished with 13 carries for 41 yards, just 3.2 ypc. Some of that may be a freshman going through the bumps and bruises for the first time during the week after playing significant minutes, it also just may have been one of those games. He did get his first career touchdown on a one-yard plunge early in the second quarter.
Isaac Bennett got in late and scored two touchdowns, and Malcolm Crockett even got his first action of the season, with seven carries for 32 yards in mop-up duty.
Overall, the rushing attack was actually pretty disappointing Saturday. Gardner-Webb was loading up to stop the run, but that shouldn't matter. Pitt has such a significant talent advantage, that it should have been able to telegraph its plays and still run over Gardner-Webb. If you take out Graham's 78-yarder, the rushing attack gained just 151 yards on 36 carries (4.2 ypc). Pitt should be able to do better than that against such an overmatched foe. But this is the same team that absolutely steamrolled a quality Virginia Tech team on the ground two weeks ago, so I think they just need to find a little more consistency.
Receivers: This was probably the most impressive unit on the offensive side of the ball Saturday. Devin Street and Mike Shanahan pretty much kept up what they've been doing this season, but Cam Saddler also got into the mix with five catches. Those three guys combined for 15 catches, 321 yards and three touchdowns. If Saddler can really get it going, he gives Pitt's offense just another dimension to work with. Put him in the slot, and Street and Shanahan on the outside, and that's a pretty legitimate receiving unit. He showed he has the potential with some acrobatic catches Saturday, now he has to prove he can do the little things, like timing and route-running, against a quality Division I-A defense so he can keep getting open.
I would be remiss if I also didn't give credit to Street for a couple of really nice blocks. On both of Pitt's long scoring plays (Graham's 78-yard run and Shanahan's 77-yard reception), Street had a final block to spring the runner for the score. Being a good blocker is one of the easiest ways a receiver can endear himself to coaches and teammates.
Tight ends: Not a ton here. Hubie Graham sat out again with a clavicle injury, and we'll see this week what the long-term prognosis is for him. Since he came back into the Cincinnati game in which he got hurt, I can't imagine it's anything incredibly serious. But, then again, I'm not a doctor, and I didn't even stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night.
Freshman J.P. Holtz got the start once again. Neither he nor Drew Carswell recorded any receptions, and both served mainly in blocking roles.
Offensive line: This is probably one area where the talent gap showed the most. The one area that Pitt has been vulnerable, even against Virginia Tech, was at a speed rush off the edge. Gardner-Webb simply didn't have the talent to take advantage of that, and that made the offensive line's job a whole lot easier. Sunseri was sacked just once, and generally wasn't pressured too much.
In the running game, like I said earlier, it was somewhat disappointing that the line couldn't open up some more consistent holes for the backs. On Graham's 78-yarder, though, he had enough space for a freight train to go through, so that's a positive sign.
They had a couple of holding penalties, and I'm sure that's something they'll try and work on moving forward, but other than that, not a whole lot to say about the big guys up front. They, for the most part, physically dominated an overmatched opponent.
Defensive line: With Donald out with a knee injury, freshman Darryl Render stepped in and got his first career start Saturday. He finished with three tackles (tied for most on the defensive line) and 1.5 tackles for loss. He said afterwards that he started getting more comfortable as the game went on. While you never want to see a guy like Donald off the field, this could end up being a good thing for Pitt. Render is a young guy who is going to have to contribute this season, so to get him some game experience and confidence before you head into weekly Big East play could be a big boost to the depth on the defensive line.
We also saw the first extended glimpse of Shayne Hale Saturday. The Conway Award winner from last spring had three tackles (1.5 TFL), a sack and a fumble recovery. Like with Render, the more guys Pitt can have contribute along the line, the better.
Devin Cook didn't get the start at defensive end this week, which was a bit surprising given how good he looked against Virginia Tech, but still worked his way onto the stat sheet. He had two tackles, one of which was a sack and forced fumble. He's a guy who I think we'll see more and more as the season wears on.
Linebackers: A week after getting his first career start, Manny Williams led the Panthers with seven total tackles Saturday (1 TFL). He also showed his versatility with a couple of nice plays in pass coverage. That's one of the difficult parts about playing the Will linebacker spot, alternating between run stopping and pass coverage, but Williams seems to be doing it nicely.
Shane Gordon had another nice game, as did Eric Williams. As a whole, this unit seems like its finally starting to come together to be one of the strengths of Pitt's defense.
It's a little disappointing we didn't get to see Todd Thomas out there Saturday. He dressed, but apparently he just wasn't feeling up to it at game time to give it a go. You have to think with the bye week that he'd be ready to go against Syracuse, but it'll be tough coming into that game, a Big East game on the road, without having played any game minutes so far this season. Even just a couple of snaps in the Gardner-Webb game could have gone a long way in getting him ready to play a bigger role the rest of the way.
The feel-good moment of the game came towards the end, when Dan Mason finally got back on the field. As I'm sure many of you remember, Mason suffered a gruesome leg injury against Miami two years ago, and hasn't seen the field since. Doctors said there was a good chance Mason would never be able to play football again, but credit the kid for working his tail off to get back on the field. After everything he's been through, great to see him finally be able to get back out there again.
Secondary: Pitt wasn't tested a whole lot through the air Saturday, but the secondary did a good enough job when called upon. As expected, Andrew Taglianetti took over for injured Jahmahl Pardner at the nickelback spot. I've been asked a couple of times why he's taking that role and not Cullen Christian. The reason is that I think the staff likes Taglianetti's all-around game (and experience) a bit more than Christian's. Since the defense is losing a linebacker in those packages, the nickelback should be a little bigger and more physical to stop the run if he has to. Christian is a better pure cover guy than Taglianetti, but Taglianetti is a more solid tackler and a bit better at stopping the run.
Jason Hendricks had yet another interception Saturday, to go along with the two he grabbed against Virginia Tech. He was just a few inches away from another one (despite Jarred Holley getting away with some pretty blatant pass interference), but couldn't grab the ball before it hit the ground. Hendricks said he felt like he's just in a zone right now when it comes to reading the quarterback from the safety spot.
"I’m calling myself Ed Reed right now," he joked after the game. "There’s just something about it. I’m just breaking on the ball faster."
Not sure Pittsburgh fans will appreciate that he chose a Raven to emulate, but I'm sure they'll take the picks.
Special teams: Kevin Harper was 2-for-3 on field goals, making from 41 and 22 yards. The miss was a 43-yarder. A 43-yard field goal is hardly automatic, especially in college football, but Harper has been pretty inconsistent so far this year. The Panthers haven't played a close game yet, so it hasn't really come back to bite them. But every football fan knows that it's only a matter of time before a shaky kicker will have to come out there with the game on the line. Not a lot Pitt can do, other than try and build up Harper's confidence and work with him in practice.
Coaching: Paul Chryst didn't really have much of a challenge, coaching-wise this week. He let his guys go out there and just flat-out be better football players than Gardner-Webb. He did a good job of rotating other guys in once the game way well in hand, and that could go a long way in building depth for the rest of the season. Chryst talks a lot about guys "putting stuff on tape," and a lot of guys put stuff on tape Saturday. Hopefully that can lead to some depth down the road. I'm sure Chryst would have liked to have run the ball a littler bit better against a I-AA defense, but that is a fairly small nit to pick in this win.