Well, if Pitt needed a tune-up game before this weekend’s clash in South Bend, it’s hard to ask for a better performance than the 47-17 win over Temple Saturday. Here’s a link to my game story from Sunday’s paper, and here’s today’s follow-up about the offense coming together. With that, let’s get to the breakdown.
Quarterback: I know a lot of Pitt fans have been sort of waiting for the other shoe to drop for Tino Sunseri, and you can’t totally blame them given past experiences. It’s getting to the point, though, where it’s hard to deny that Sunseri may have just put it all together this year. He’s clearly comfortable in the offense and has been making smart decisions with his throws. Saturday, he was 20 of 28 for 321 yards and three touchdowns. It was his third 300-yard game of the season and, most importantly, his fifth consecutive game with no interceptions. Sunseri retook the Big East lead in passing efficiency from Teddy Bridgewater, and ranks eighth nationally.
At this point, I think it’s fair to say that Sunseri isn’t a game-breaking quarterback that you can build a team around. Yes, he could still improve his pocket presence and he’ll miss a throw now and again. That said, I think he has exceeded even the most optimistic projections for him this season. On the year, he has completed 69 percent of his passes 2,199 yards, 13 touchdowns and two interceptions. Hard to ask for anything more than that.
Running backs: A week after sputtering somewhat against Buffalo, both running backs had big days Saturday. Ray Graham had 109 yards on 19 carries with two touchdowns, and Rushel Shell added 79 yards on 12 carries and a score. Graham also had a nice 35-yard run early in the fourth quarter that set up a game-sealing touchdown. On that run, Graham looked definitively like the “old Ray Graham,” where he made a couple of beautiful cuts and made people miss. Even if the production has been up and down, Graham has looked a lot more confident running the ball these last couple of games. He has shed the full knee brace and is just wearing a sleeve now (which he hopes to ditch eventually).
Graham also four catches for 71 yards, including a 33-yard screen pass that looked remarkably similar to the one Shell broke against Buffalo last week. Sunseri talked after the game about how at this point in the season, offenses have to “break tendencies” to surprise opponents that have studied hours of film, and the screen seems to have caught both Buffalo and Temple by surprise.
Wide receivers: Another game, another strong outing from Devin Street. The redshirt junior had six catches for 140 yards and a late touchdown. On Street’s score, a 58-yarder from Sunseri, he said the defense simply lost track of him. How that happens to a guy that leads the Big East in receptions and receiving yards per game, I have no idea. Street’s biggest improvement this year has been his consistency. He seems to have erased drops and occasional mental errors. Sunseri knows that if he’s open, he’ll bring it in, and it’s hard to overstate how important that is for a receiver-quarterback connection. With that come improved production and confidence, which all feed back into one another. The physical tools have always been there for Street, and now they’re showing through.
As for the other guys, Mike Shanahan had six catches for 67 yards, and Cameron Saddler and Ronald Jones chipped in a catch apiece. Obviously, it’s hard to complain about Pitt’s passing game so far this season, but it is a bit of a red flag that Street and Shanahan account for 78 percent of Pitt’s receptions from wide receivers this year. Street has 50 and Shanahan has 37, but no other wide receiver has more than Saddler’s 13. If a defense can take away those top two targets, the other guys need to show they can step up and get open, too.
Tight ends: Hubie Graham returned for Pitt this week, but JP Holtz still got the majority of the playing time. Holtz also had the only tight end reception of the game for Pitt, an 18-yarder that ended with his first career touchdown. Drew Carswell was also back for Pitt, but didn’t register a catch. Paul Chryst said Monday that the guys who have been injured (Graham and Carswell) came out of the game clean, and should be ready to go against Notre Dame.
Offensive line: Another solid effort from the offensive line. They kept Sunseri upright, except for one sack that ended a potential touchdown drive. The running game also took a step forward this week with 207 yards on the ground.
Unfortunately, the biggest takeaway from this game on the offensive line is the loss of Ryan Schlieper for the season. We knew coming into the season that Pitt was playing with fire to some respect with a lack of depth on the offensive line. Arthur Doakes came in for Pitt in the second half, and generally remained pretty anonymous (for an offensive lineman, that’s a good thing.) Chryst said Doakes would get the first crack at taking Schlieper’s place, but Shane Johnson would also get a look. Either way, Pitt will have a first-time starter on the offensive line Saturday when they take on one of the best front sevens in the country at Notre Dame. That is certainly a cause for concern for Pitt.
Defensive line: TJ Clemmings was a pre-game scratch because of some back spasms that cropped up Saturday morning, and Shayne Hale took his place admirably. Hale finished with six tackles, including three TFLs. In general, Pitt has done a pretty good job developing depth along the defensive line this season. Darryl Render got a decent amount of playing time Saturday, and has done a pretty good job this year. The depth along this unit was a concern coming into the season, but the non-starters have done a good job providing other options when those four need to get off the field. For Clemmings, Chryst seemed optimistic that he would be back for Notre Dame this week.
Linebackers: Once again, it was Todd Thomas, Dan Mason and Eric Williams starting for this unit. Mason had another nice game, but obviously that is overshadowed by the fact that he lacerated his liver towards the end of the game and will miss the rest of the season. Ironically, Mason’s injury came on a play where he chased down the quarterback from behind and made a very athletic tackle.
Linebacker will be an interesting position to watch this week. Shane Gordon missed the Temple game with a high ankle sprain, and Chryst wasn’t sure whether or not he’d be back this week. He did say Joe Trebitz is healthy and ready to go after being banged up earlier this season. We’ll know later this week on Gordon, but if he can’t go, Trebitz will get the start there.
Chryst also confirmed Monday that Manny Williams is out for the season after undergoing ACL surgery today. He missed the last two games, so this isn’t necessarily a new injury. Thomas will stick at that ‘Will’ position for the rest of the season. It’s getting pretty thin for Pitt at linebacker this season, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see Andrew Taglianetti or someone like that playing down low to stop the run out of Pitt’s nickel pacakge a little bit more going forward. At the very least, this position will be something to watch in practice this week.
Secondary: Not a ton of action for the secondary this week with Temple’s run-heavy attack. My biggest takeaway for this position group was the play of Lafayette Pitts. Pitts had one nice breakup in pass coverage and also a momentum-swinging strip and recovery of Temple receiver Deon Miller. Pitts just straight-up took the ball away from Miller. It gave the ball Pitt deep in Temple territory, and deflated the Owls, ending their hope of a comeback. Pitts clearly has elite athleticism. He still has plenty to learn about the mental side of being a cornerback, but as just a redshirt freshman, it’s hard not to get excited about that kid’s potential.
Special teams: At least for now, it looks like Kevin Harper has kicked (pun intended) his early-season case of the yips. Harper made field goals from 32 and 38 yards Saturday and, while neither one was incredible, he’s becoming more and more consistent from within his range. Harper has made four consecutive kicks for the first time this season, and looks like he’ll be a reliable option for three points down the stretch.
The punt return unit didn’t have its best game Saturday. Saddler had a big return that was wiped out due to a penalty, and the Panthers gave Temple new life on its first drive after a running into the kicker penalty (though that one included an admirable sell job from Temple punter Brandon McManus).
Coaching: This was another game that seemed pretty easy for Chryst and company. When the offense can get the type of yards on the ground that it did Saturday, Pitt’s offense can look downright impressive.
I do think the clock management at the end of the first half could have been better. The offense made it a moot point when it scored a touchdown, but Pitt went to the locker room with one timeout in its pocket. That timeout could have been used earlier in the drive to maybe give Pitt a few more chances once it got down close to the goal line. In a win like Saturday’s, though, that’s just nitpicking.