Well, it wasn’t anywhere close to pretty, but Pitt will take wins wherever it can get them at this point, and the Panthers got one at UB Stadium Saturday. In the wind and the rain, they kept any realistic hope of a bowl bid alive with a 20-6 win. Yes, there are still plenty of areas for Pitt to improve on, but this was a game they just absolutely could not lose, and they didn’t.
Quarterback: Not a whole lot to go off of here. Tino Sunseri was asked to do very, very little, with just 17 pass attempts on the afternoon. He completed nine of them for 128 yards, by far his lowest output of the season. In the first half, though, he attempted six passes, none of them more than five yards downfield (the one downfield attempt of the first half, an out to Devin Street, was called back on a holding penalty). In the second half, Pitt opened up the playbook a little bit and Sunseri did what he had to do. He found Mike Shanahan for 25 yards on a 3rd-and-14 on Pitt’s second series, which ended in a touchdown and gave the Panthers a two-touchdown lead they would hold onto until the end of the game. Sunseri said after the game that the conditions weren’t so much as factor as that Buffalo was just loading up to stop the pass and daring the Panthers to run the ball. He missed a couple of deep shots that could have blown the game open, but, given the conditions and the gameplan, Sunseri did what he had to do.
Running backs: The running game got back on track...sort of. Rushel Shell and Ray Graham both reached the end zone, and the Panthers nearly doubled their yards per carry average from the last two games, but the players and coaches all said afterwards that there’s still plenty of room for improvement. Given the production this unit gave Pitt in the wins over Virginia Tech and Gardner-Webb, I’d be inclined to agree. The two running backs combined to average 3.4 yards per carry Saturday (Pitt as a team averaged 3.0), still a far cry from the 5+ they were getting in those two wins. I do think Graham, in particular, had a much better performance Saturday after two so-so games. He was much more decisive hitting the hole and didn’t dance around as much int he backfield. On his touchdown run, he showed some great acceleration and powered his way into the end zone. Even though Pitt didn’t have much of a passing game to speak of, Shell had the play of the first half on his 41-yard screen reception. He only has eight catches on the season, and getting really involved in the passing game is the next step for him becoming a complete all-situation back for Pitt.
Wide receivers: When I looked at the stats after this game, I was surprised to see Street with five receptions. If there’s a way to quietly account for over half of your team’s completions, he found a way to do it. I guess, though, that speaks more to the expectations for Street at this point in the season. He has established himself as a reliable number-one option in the passing game for Pitt and five catches for 41 yards is a “ho-hum” game for him. Shanahan had the big 25-yard catch in the second half, but also spent some more time inside working as a hybrid tight end in run support. He said today that he didn’t mind doing a little more blocking with Hubie Graham and Drew Carswell out. With his size, too, tight end seems like a logical move if he wants to play at the next level.
Tight ends: Just like against Louisville, it was the JP Holtz show at this position. Brendan Carozzoni made his season debut, but it was mostly Holtz. He didn’t have any catches, but that’s not saying much given the run-heavy offensive attack. Chryst was asked today about Holtz’s non-involvement in the passing game so far, and this was his response:
“Combination [of factors], I think. J.P. has also been helping on special teams and he’s getting a lot of snaps. The last couple of weeks we’ve used some different personnel groupings. Haven’t lost confidence in them or anything like that, but just trying to make sure that the snaps we’re getting out of guys that we’re using them wisely.”
Chryst said it wasn’t like Holtz was getting “phased out” of the passing game or anything like that. Likely, it’s just Holtz being a freshman and needing to slowly add things to his plate.
Offensive line: Facing a unit they should be able to physically dominate, the offensive line turned in a solid day at the office. Yes, the running game only got 126 yards on 42 carries, but, for the most part, the line was able to get a solid push for the backs and at least pick up a couple of yards. Only two of Pitt’s rushes Saturday went for losses. The biggest thing the running game lacked Saturday was an explosive play, and that’s not on the line. In pass protection, Sunseri was only sacked once. Granted, Buffalo doesn’t really have the athletes off the edge that have given Pitt trouble this season, so I wouldn’t say everything is all better with this unit. Temple will be a challenge, and Notre Dame could end up being a nightmare, but, for this week, the line did what it needed to.
Defensive line: This unit accounted for four tackles for loss and a sack Saturday. Aaron Donald was constantly in the Bulls’ backfield causing disruption. Obviously, this is what you expect and want out of Donald, but sometimes it can cause problems for the defense if he’s flushing a mobile quarterback out of the pocket before the defensive ends can set the edge. That happened a couple of times against Buffalo and Alex Zordich was able to beat the Panthers with his legs on a few plays. Overall, Chryst said he still wasn’t too pleased with the defense’s ability to contain a mobile quarterback, a problem that has been a theme this season (see: Legaux, Munchie and Bridgewater, Teddy).
Linebackers: In an otherwise dreary game, the story of the day is clearly Dan Mason. His 11 tackles tied a career high, and he showed that, two years after his brutal knee injury, he’s more than just an inspirational story. He’s going to be an impact linebacker for Pitt the rest of this season. His pursuit and tackle of Zordich on the game’s final play was remarkable, and showed that he still has the straight-line speed to be a linebacker at this level. At the other positions, Todd Thomas filled in admirably for Manny Williams on the weakside, and Eric Williams had a solid game on the strong side, breaking up a couple of passes in coverage in the end zone late in the game. We’ll see as this week goes on what the status of Shane Gordon and Manny Williams is (sounds like Williams is out for at least a couple of weeks) but these three linebackers looked pretty good Saturday.
Secondary: Jason Hendricks continues to show that he just has a nose for the ball. He did a nice job undercutting a sideline route on his interception that set the Panthers up in good scoring position. Other than that, Pitt held Zordich to 23 of 41 passing at 165 yards, a nice bounce-back day after letting Bridgewater torch them for over 300 yards last week. Physically, they weren’t tested by Buffalo’s receivers the way they will be in games later on this season, but you can only cover the guys across from you, and they did that Saturday. A lot of times, Zordich’s scrambles were forced by everyone just being covered downfield.
Special teams: This was a game that Kevin Harper needed. In the wind and the rain, he converted both of his field goal attempts, including a 45-yarder. Confidence is sometimes 99 percent of the battle for kickers, and this should help Harper going forward. I wouldn’t be surprised if Pitt needs him to come through in a game or two later this season. The special teams, as a whole, played well Saturday. Despite playing with a wet ball, there were no bobbled snaps or shanked kicks. The only mistake was Harper’s opening kickoff going out of bounds, and Harper said he just misjudged the wind when trying to place the ball in the corner.
Coaching: Chryst definitely didn’t take any chances Saturday. He knew his best chance of winning this game was to run the ball, play defense, and trust that his players could be more physical than Buffalo’s. He was right. It might not get Pitt any “style points,” but they don’t have much margin for error if they want to still get a bowl bid at the end of the season. It might have been reasonable to expect a little more flair in a game against a 1-6 MAC team. Weather can be a great equalizer, though, so coming out with a win was the most important thing for Chryst and his staff.