The Panthers fell to 2-4 (and 0-3 in the Big East) with their 45-35 loss to Louisville Saturday. The offense took a step forward from the Syracuse loss, but the Pitt defense — which had been pretty stout in the last three games — was nowhere to be found. The Cardinals scored early and often, and the game was decided by a 21-0 third quarter for Louisville.
Quarterback: Another game, another solid statistical day for Tino Sunseri. Sunseri finished 28 of 37 for 287 yards and two touchdowns. There were a couple of throws I'm sure he wants back, notably the overthrown 4th-and-8 pass to Cam Saddler over the middle in the fourth quarter, but overall it was a good day at the office for the quarterback. His first touchdown pass to Saddler in the corner of the end zone was a perfectly placed ball where only his receiver could get it, and Saddler went up to make an outstanding play on the ball. The biggest thing for Sunseri Saturday was that he went another game without throwing an interception, his third consecutive game without a pick. He still leads the Big East in passing efficiency with a 163.5 rating.
The one area where I think Sunseri can still improve is in his presence and awareness in the pocket. He was sacked five times Saturday, and some of those were certainly due to protection breakdowns. There were also definitely times where Sunseri could have either stepped up in the pocket or slid to avoid the rush. While he has taken a pretty significant step forward in his passing this season, this is one area where I think he can get a lot better.
Running backs: Rushel Shell got the bulk of the workload Saturday, with 18 carries for 96 yards and a touchdown. Ray Graham had just six carries for 20 yards. My colleague Ron Cook wrote about Shell in Sunday's P-G. Shell is still, technically, behind Graham on the depth chart, but I really think they're more like co-starters at this point. As Shell begins to pick up little things like blocking and blitz pickup, he'll be able to get on the field in more situations. Graham just hasn't looked like the same player this year coming off his ACL surgery. He's hesitant to hit holes and seems to dance around too much in the backfield. Shell is a much more straight-ahead, bruising runner.
Paul Chryst has said repeatedly that Pitt will need both running backs clicking to be successful, and that's definitely the case. It looks like the split will be more 50/50 than anyone really expected heading into the season, but Graham and Shell will both get their touches moving forward. Especially in games where Pitt has a lead, they'll probably rotate both in more and more. It looked like early on Saturday, the two were alternating series, until the end when Shell started getting a heavier load. Chryst has plenty of experience using multiple running backs from his time at Wisconsin, and that'll pay off as he juggles the carries for both guys moving forward.
Wide receivers: Devin Street had his second consecutive game with double-digit catches and set a new career-high with 11 grabs for 111 yards and a late touchdown. Street has been a nice surprise for the Panthers this year, turning into a really reliable option for Sunseri. You can tell that his chemistry is getting better with Sunseri and the quarterback is looking for him in key spots. Street now leads the Big East with 6.5 catches per game. Chryst talked today about how he likes coaching guys like Street because the potential is through the roof. Street certainly has tons of big-play ability, and it seems like he's finally starting to put it all together this year.
Mike Shanahan had a slightly quieter game, but still got 74 yards on four catches. Saddler only had two grabs, but that first-quarter touchdown grab was a think of beauty.
Tight ends: Regular starter Hubie Graham missed the game with a high ankle sprain, and Drew Carswell was also sidelined with an injury. Freshman JP Holtz played virtually every snap for Pitt at tight end, and was used primarily as a blocker. Holtz finished the game with no receptions. Mark Giubilato also got some snaps at tight end when Holtz did come out, so he's the emergency guy for that position, it appears. We don't have a long-term prognosis on Graham or Carswell yet, but that'll be something to keep an eye on this week.
Offensive line: This group took a step forward from the Syracuse game, but still has plenty of room to improve. The run blocking was definitely better, as the two running backs combined for 116 yards. On one of the game's pivotal plays — the 4th-and-1 towards the end of the first half — the line failed to get any push for Shell and the running back was stopped well behind the line of scrimmage.
Pass protection, though, was still pretty rough. Sunseri was sacked five times and hurried several more. The problem was sort of similar to what they struggled with against Syracuse. When Pitt gets in passing situations, like 3rd-and-longs, the defense ends can pin their ears back and rush the quarterback. The offensive line has a lot of trouble with speed off the edge, and those are the situations where the ends can just speed rush and not worry about the run. Especially when they were trailing, Pitt had a lot of passing situations Saturday, and the defense adjusted accordingly
Defensive line: It certainly wasn't pretty for the defense Saturday, but this is one unit that I think actually had an OK game. Tyrone Ezell had his best game of the season and finished with 1.5 sacks and four tackles. Aaron Donald was, as usual, double-teamed for most of the game, but the other guys did a pretty good job picking up. Pitt didn't rotate a lot of guys in along the defensive line Saturday, and I get the sense that the line got a little tired towards the end, especially on Senorise Perry's 59-yarder that put the game on ice.
It seems sort of curious that there isn't more rotation along the defensive line. A guy like Devin Cook, for example, played pretty solidly when called upon earlier this season, but he hasn't played virtually at all on defense in the last two games. Jack Lippert missed this game with the same injury that has cost him the last few games, but he's working his way back in at practice, so I expect he'll be back on the field sooner rather than later.
Linebackers: This was another group that has been sort of banged up with injuries recently. Despite leaving the Syracuse game early,Manny Williams started for Pitt on Saturday, along with Shane Gordon and Eric Williams. Gordon got nicked up during the course of this one, and Dan Mason came on in his place. The depth chart still lists Joe Trebitz as Gordon's backup, but it looks like it's really Mason. Mason played solidly and finished with six tackles (his first official tackles since 2010). While he seems to be pretty good straight ahead, Mason tends to struggle a little bit playing in space. This is likely a lingering effect from the knee injury he suffered, and he may never be the same player he was pre-injury. That said, he has already accomplished more than any doctor said he would, so who's to say?
Todd Thomas saw the field on defense Saturday only in Pitt's dime formation, much like he did against Syracuse. I was somewhat surprised by how much the Panthers went to this formation against Louisville, which is not as much of a spread team as the Orange. Talent-wise, Thomas is definitely one of Pitt's top three linebackers, so it seems like only a matter of time before he's starting with the base defense, as well. Chryst said today that these past couple of weeks have almost been like training camp to Thomas, who missed so much time with his injury. As he gets more comfortable and knowledgable about the defense, I think he'll supplant Eric Williams at that starting SAM linebacker spot.
Secondary: Hoo boy. Long day at the office for Pitt's secondary Saturday. Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater threw for 304 yards and a touchdown against a unit that had not allowed a 300-yard passer all season. On probably the biggest play of the game, Bridgewater's 75-yard touchdown pass to DeVante Parker to open the second half, Parker just ran right past cornerback K'Waun Williams after a little stutter move inside. Louisville kept eight guys in to pass protect on that play and had just two receivers going out. Safety Jason Hendricks was frozen by playaction, so Williams had no help over the top when Parker got past him.
That wasn't the only time the Panther secondary got beat deep. Bridgewater had a handful of overthrows when he had guys open downfield. The secondary unit has been a strength for Pitt so far this season, but it struggled mightily against the Cardinals. Like I said, Pitt used its dime formation a bit against the pass, but it really didn't seem to help much. I still think that the secondary, and safety in particular, is where Pitt is probably the deepest talent-wise.
Williams left the Syracuse game early with a knee injury, and was questionable as recently as Thursday. Chryst said after the game that he wouldn't have put him out there if he didn't think he was healthy enough to play, but it's tough not to wonder if that knee is still bothering him at least a little bit. That said, it was just one play, and even the best cornerbacks get beat once in a while.
Special teams: Really tough day for Pitt's special teams as well. Chryst said today that the punting unit had to get a lot better, fast. They had one punt blocked and failed on another one due to a bad snap. Kevin Barthelemy, Pitt's regular long-snapper, is still out with a hand injury, so David Murphy was handling the duties Saturday. Chryst said he thought it would be a few more weeks before Barthelemy is back, so that's something to watch going forward.
Kevin Harper missed his only field goal attempt of the day, a 50-yarder in the first quarter. That's a long attempt, so it's hard to fault Harper there, but he has struggled this season. At the end of the game, Chryst opted to go for it on 4th-and-8 rather than trying a 39-yard field goal that would have cut the lead to seven. He said today that it wasn't a lack of faith in Harper that made him make that decision, but he obviously liked his chances of converting a 4th-and-8 more than a 39-yard field goal at that point.
Coaching: Chryst will certainly get some heat for the two failed 4th-down attempts, but I think both decisions were defensible at the time. If either one converts, Chryst certainly looks a lot smarter. Chryst spoke today about the difference between being an offensive coordinator and a head coach. At Wisconsin, his job was to choose a play call if head coach Bret Bielema decided to go for it. Now, his job is to be the one making that call.
I do think Chryst is still sort of getting a feel for managing macro situations like clock management, going for it on 4th down, etc. Hindsight is 20/20, but Chryst ended up costing his team three points at the end of the first half by going for it and giving the Cardinals good position for a field goal.