The Breakdown - Connecticut

Written by Sam Werner on .

Apologies for the delay getting this week’s breakdown post up. Some travel delays hindered me on my way back to Pittsburgh from beautiful East Hartford. As for the game Friday night, that was probably Pitt’s most damaging defeat of the season. Yes, the Youngstown State game was bad, but, in the long run, that game had no impact on Pitt’s bowl eligibility (or even their now-long-gone chance at a Big East title). Pitt came out sluggish and, while coaches and players denied any hangover from the Notre Dame game, it’s hard not to make that connection. With that, let’s get to the positions...

Quarterback: The stat line was still there for Tino Sunseri (19-34, 302 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT), but this game felt a lot more like the early season losses to Youngstown State and Cincinnati in that the Panthers were throwing more out of desperation to catch up rather than staying in the flow of their offense. One of the biggest problems for Pitt this season is that they just aren’t conditioned to come back from big deficits using the offensive system that Paul Chryst wants to use. Chryst wants to pound the ball on the ground, control the clock and eat up long drives. When you’re trailing 24-0 at halftime, that’s tough to do. Being behind makes Sunseri throw more than he or Chryst is really comfortable with.
Sunseri also had a chance to make a couple of big plays Friday night that he missed. Notably, Devin Street was wide open on a couple of deep routes, and Sunseri even pump faked to him a few times but never pulled the trigger. This game seemed like a case of Sunseri being very able to make all the throws physically, but mentally it seemed like the offense wasn’t close to clicking on all cylinders. Players definitely weren’t on the same page as one another, especially in the first half.

Running backs: For the second week in a row, it was mostly Ray Graham and not as much Rushel Shell for Pitt. Graham had 15 carries for 41 yards, and Shell got just six carries for 23 yards. I’m no math genius, but that’s only 21 carries for running backs, definitely far fewer than Chryst would like. Like I said earlier, the fact that Pitt trailed big in this game almost immediately meant that the Panthers weren’t able to run because they had to play catch-up, and that will hurt the running backs’ performance.
Last week, Chryst said he “didn’t feel good” about Shell getting just one carry against Notre Dame. While he probably liked the split a bit more this week, I would bet that he wants to get Shell more involved than just six carries. The problem is that when you’re trailing and need to throw to catch up, Graham is still a more explosive option and a better all-around back in terms of pass catching and blocking. I don’t think it’s a case of Shell wearing down or doing anything to warrant fewer carries, just the way the games have played out the last few weeks.

Wide receivers: Devin Street led the Panthers with six catches for 76 yards, but never really seemed to get going until late. He was open downfield a couple of times and Sunseri couldn’t find him. Mike Shanahan had three catches, but each went for a fairly big gain. His shortest reception was his 18-yard touchdown catch with 2:46 to play.
Overall, it was a fairly uneven game from the wideouts. With Sunseri averaging 15.9 yards per completion, most of the pass plays were big gains, but they didn’t hit with enough consistency to keep the offense on the field and sustain drives to keep the game close. Some of this is on Sunseri, and some of it is on the receivers.

Tight ends: The biggest news coming out of this position group is that Hubie Graham is hurt, yet again. It has been a really tough season for the redshirt senior, who has dealt with just about every injury under the sun. During the Big East coaches conference Monday, Chryst seemed optimistic that the off week would give Graham a chance to rest and be ready to go against Rutgers in two weeks. That’s all wait-and-see at this point, though, so we’ll keep an eye on it.
As far as Friday’s game, with Graham sidelined, Drew Carswell actually took over as Pitt’s leading pass-catcher at the tight end position. Carswell finished with five catches for 83 yards and a touchdown. His first four catches, coincidentally, all went for exactly 18 yards.

Offensive line: Not an awful game up front, but certainly a step back from the line’s performance against Notre Dame the week before. Sunseri was sacked three times, twice in the second half and one on a key third down. After they did such a good job containing the Irish off the edge (at least for the first three quarters), Connecticut’s Sio Moore had a field day in Pitt’s backfield. He finished with six tackles, three TFLs and two sacks.
To be fair, I think Connecticut’s defense showed Friday night that, even though the Huskies aren’t necessarily an elite team, they are an elite defensive unit. They did a great job getting penetration and hitting Ray Graham either behind the line or right at the line, making his job difficult all night.

Defensive line: Despite what the numbers bore out, I actually think Pitt’s defensive line had a pretty good game Friday. Aaron Donald led the Panthers with 13 tackles, including two TFLs. He, and the rest of the line, especially did a good job in the second half when Connecticut was trying to run out the clock by running the ball. The Huskies got very conservative in the second half, and Pitt’s defensive line held them to just 33 yards on the ground after halftime. Connecticut running back Lyle McCombs ran the ball a little bit better than he has for most of this season, but didn’t explode by any means against the Panthers.
I also think Tyrone Ezell had a really nice game here for Pitt. He had six tackles (two TFL) and half a sack. He did a good job complementing Donald on run support when the two of them could get penetration into the backfield.

Linebackers: Not a pretty game for this unit. Just like against Notre Dame, the starters were Eric Williams (Will), Joe Trebitz (Mike), and Todd Thomas (Sam). Trebitz had another productive game stats-wise, finishing with nine tackles. Shane Gordon also mixed in a little bit more than he did against Notre Dame, finishing with four tackles.
Overall, though, it was a rough game for the linebackers. They were caught out of position on run support multiple occasions, especially in the first half. When McCombs got the ball, all three would bunch up towards the middle of the field, leaving him plenty of space on the outside to get 10-15 yards.
In the passing game, they also bear the brunt of the responsibility for Connecticut’s ability to get the ball to tight end Ryan Griffin for big gains on playaction passes in the first half. Chryst said after the game that it was mainly a case of eye discipline (i.e. players keeping their eyes in the backfield after the playaction fake) and not tracking the tight end. Looking at the replay, it’s tough to even pin this on one guy because it looks like every linebacker was guilty of it at least once. These plays allowed Connecticut to start moving and, almost just as importantly, gain some confidence in their offense.

Secondary: Not on incredibly eventful game in the secondary, since Connecticut’s game was predicating mostly on getting the big lead with a lot of underneath passes and then just holding on for dear life. The one thing I noticed is that it seemed like the cornerbacks were playing very soft in coverage at times, which is surprising given the coaching staff’s man-to-man, press coverage philosophy. Chryst cited that as an area he hopes to improve over the course of this bye week. The only other really relevant news from the secondary this week was Jason Hendricks going down with an injury. LIke Hubie Graham, Chryst said he hoped the open week would give Hendricks a chance to rest up and be ready to go, but didn’t have any specific information on the injury. With Hendricks out, Ray Vinopal filled in and Chryst said he was pleased with Vinopal’s performance.

Special teams: Same story, different year, right? Once again, it was a big special teams play from Connecticut’s Nick Williams that ended up being the final nail in Pitt’s coffin. In 2010, it was a kick return. This year, it was an 80-yard punt return that put the Huskies up 17-0 midway through the second quarter. On that punt return, JP Holtz just whiffed as the first man down making the tackle, and received zero help from the rest of his punt team, as Williams was never touched on his way to the end zone.
Kevin Harper was one for two on his field goal attempts, making from 42 yards and missing from 44 yards. The miss doinked off the right upright, and the 42-yarder was a pretty impressive kick given the cold conditions. Overall, not a whole lot on Harper, a solid, not spectacular, game.

Coaching: There aren’t a ton of specific in-game decision we can really point to, like last week, when it comes to coaching decisions. The bigger takeaway here is how Chryst had his team prepared for this game. Players said afterwards that they thought they came out flat in the first quarter, and Chryst accepted some of the responsibility for that. He also said, though, that players need to get themselves motivated to some extent. It’s easy to get pumped up playing No. 4 Notre Dame in South Bend, but players need to get just as excited to play Connecticut on a Friday night when bowl eligibility is on the line. They weren’t, and that’s the primary reason for the loss. It’s interesting that, for a coach who preaches consistency at every turn, his team has had very little of it this season. That’s not a criticism of Chryst, just an observation that he’s still clearly in the process of implementing his vision for this team.

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