Much like the rest of Pitt’s season, Saturday’s 27-6 victory over Rutgers was totally unexpected, yet also seems to so perfectly fit the narrative of this year. The Scarlet Knights were ranked No. 21 coming into the game (No. 18 in the BCS) and could even have clinched the Big East’s BCS bid thanks to Louisville’s loss to Connecticut. But the Pitt team that showed up to face them at Heinz Field wasn’t the team that lost to Connecticut and Youngstown State in uninspired performances earlier this year. The Panthers showed Saturday that, yes, they were the same team that beat a top-15 Virginia Tech team and took Notre Dame, now bound for the BCS championship game, to triple overtime. Here’s a link to my game story from Sunday’s paper, and the follow-up from today’s P-G. With that, let’s get to the positions...
Quarterback: Another game, another interception-free performance from Tino Sunseri. In his final game as a Panther at Heinz Field, Sunseri did what he’s been doing all season. He was solid, though probably not spectacular. He was 21 of 39 for 227 yards and two touchdowns. There were a few throws he missed here and there, but he avoided costly turnovers, a necessity against a higher-ranked foe. Sunseri does share some responsibility for the fumbled snap that gave Rutgers the ball at its own 2-yard line, but that didn’t end up coming back to hurt the Panthers. He was sacked just twice, once on the final play when the game was no longer in doubt.
A reflection on Sunseri’s career at Pitt is a conversation for another day, but I think his performance Saturday summer up his senior season pretty nicely. He wasn’t perfect, and didn’t make any plays that made you say “wow,” but he put his team in a position to win. Sunseri has certainly struggled at points this season, and I know he’s not exactly a favorite son among Pitt fans, but he has met or exceeded virtually all expectations of him coming into the season. He’ll never be a game-breaking quarterback, and his pocket awareness just isn’t going to get better at this point, but to go through 11 games in a season with just two interceptions is flat-out impressive, no matter which way you slice it.
Running backs: We have a Rushel Shell sighting! Well...sort of. After being relegated to spot duty because of game situations, the freshman got 11 carries for 43 yards Saturday. As usual, Shell ran with his bruising, battering style, taking defenders with him and gaining yards after contact.
Most of the carries Saturday went to Ray Graham. Graham ran 23 times for 113 yards and a touchdown. He moved into third place on Pitt’s all-time rushing list with 3,177 yards (passing Craig “Ironhead” Heyward, who still ranks ahead of Graham on the all-nickname list), and he’s just 16 yards behind Curvin Richards for second all-time behind Tony Dorsett, who may hold the record (6,526 yards) forever. Paul Chryst said he has noticed Graham gaining more confidence in his knee over the last few weeks, and he’s not the only one. Graham has looked more explosive and decisive in his cuts, going back to the Temple game when he juked an Owls defender out of his shoes on a long run. There may only be two games left, but it’s certainly nice to see Graham back to 100 percent (even though he has insisted he’s been there all along).
Wide receivers: Pitt lost Devin Street during the game because of a rib injury. Chryst said he went to the hospital to get checked out, but had returned to Heinz Field by the end of the game. Monday, Chryst said he wasn’t sure on Street’s availability, and that he’d have to see how much he’s able to practice this week. Regardless, with Street down, redshirt junior Ed Tinker stepped in and made two big catches, one of them a 13-yarder in the second quarter for the first touchdown of his career. Tinker has been sort of buried on the depth chart this year (Josh Brinson is actually listed on the depth chart as Street’s backup), but Chryst said he has come on in recent weeks and showed it Saturday.
On the other side, Mike Shanahan had what is pretty much a typical game for him, and that’s a compliment. Five catches, 62 yards and a touchdown for Shanahan. The score was a 16-yarder where he said they lined up in a formation they had been using for slants all game. He faked a slant in and cut to the back left of the end zone, where he was wide open. On a day where a lot of seniors made key plays for Pitt, Shanahan was no exception.
Tight ends: Hubie Graham was a no-go for the fifth time this season, so Drew Carswell and JP Holtz both started the game in a two-tight end set. Each had three catches, Holtz for 45 yards, Carswell for 22 yards. Both also did a good job chipping in blocking and limiting the Scarlet Knights to two sacks while paving the way for 138 Pitt rushing yards against a stout Rutgers defense. Carswell had a couple of catches that he probably should have made, but were broken up on hits by defenders. He’s already a little thin for a tight end, so holding on to catches through contact should be a point of emphasis for him if he wants to stick at the tight end position. He certainly has the physical tools to be a matchup nightmare, but he needs to hold on to every catch to truly develop into a really versatile threat next year (which I think he can be).
Offensive line: After struggling against Connecticut, the offensive line had a nice bounce-back game Saturday. Two sacks and 138 yards against a defense that came into the game giving up 108.0 yards per game on the ground. Left guard Chris Jacobson admitted today that it took the line a couple of drives to get clicking, but once they did it was a good feeling, similar to the way they played against Notre Dame three weeks ago. It’s also worth noting that, for a unit with major depth concerns coming into the season, the line has held up awfully well with the substitution of Arthur Doakes in for Ryan Schlieper. Doakes hasn’t really been noticeable much, and that’s always a good thing for an offensive linemen. Chryst also made an interesting point today when he said that, often, linemen are prouder of having a 1,000-yard rusher than a running back is. Talking to Jacobson, it’s clear that he’s excited to get Ray Graham past the 1,000-yard mark this weekend.
Defensive line: First and foremost, Aaron Donald was an absolute monster up front Saturday. Both Rutgers coach Kyle Flood and quarterback Gary Nova pointed to the defensive line’s dominance (and Flood singled out Donald specifically) as a major factor in the game. Donald finished with seven tackles (all solo), including three tackles for loss and a sack. He was a regular in the Scarlet Knights’ backfield and a major reason their rushing attack gained just 50 net yards Saturday, with 22 of them coming on a meaningless final drive.
Along the rest of the line, I think Tyrone Ezell had a very nice game. He had four tackles, including one for a loss. He also had a nice pass breakup on a third down in the first quarter to end a Rutgers drive.
Linebackers: This was another group that really struggled, especially in pass coverage, against Connecticut, but responded valiantly against Rutgers. Shane Gordon started at middle linebacker for the first time since the Louisville game, and led the Panthers with nine tackles. Against a run-heavy Rutgers offense, the linebackers’ primary responsibility was helping in run support, and they did that well. Gordon and Todd Thomas each also added a pass breakup for good measure. Thomas had a couple of nice plays late in the game, blowing up a screen pass in the backfield and smacking Rutgers running back Savon Huggins for a two-yard gain to eliminate any chance of a Rutgers comeback.
Secondary: Jason Hendricks started Saturday after going down injured against Connecticut, and made a pair of tackles and a quarterback hit. Rutgers was forced to throw late after Pitt jumped out to a 21-0 lead, and the secondary took advantage of knowing the situation, shutting down the Scarlet Knights’ passing attack. Rutgers quarterback Nova completed 18 of 37 passes for 157 yards, a touchdown and an interception.
For as fantastic as Lafayette Pitts has been this year, Saturday actually marked his first interception of the season (he had a strip and fumble recovery against Temple, but not a pick). The interception didn’t take a ton of athleticism (I joked that Pitts probably could have called for a fair catch), but he was in the right place at the right time and took advantage. Even though Pitt had a big lead at the time, those are the kinds of plays you need to make to step on a team’s neck, so to speak, and ensure they don’t come back (especially a ranked team like Rutgers).
Special teams: Kevin Harper was good on both of his field goal, from 39 and 25 yards. Both of those are distances that should be automatic, but it should be noted that Harper made one into the open end of Heinz Field on a cold and windy day. Also, the turf was noticeably chewed up after four WPIAL championship games at the stadium Friday.
The other notable special teams play of the day was a 15-yard penalty on Ray Graham for kick-catch interference. Chryst said Graham came to him last week asking about anything he can do to help the team, and Chryst put him on the punt coverage team. Graham still has a little work to do as a gunner, because this penalty was pretty blatant.
Cam Saddler was a little shaken up after a hit from Khaseem Greene on a punt return (Greene was also hurt) but Saddler appeared fine in the post-game interview session (he even climbed over some chairs to joke around with Ray Graham during Graham’s interview session).
Coaching: Can’t really complain about much here from Chryst. The offense took a while to get going, but found its groove eventually and Pitt salted the game away in the second half with a solid rushing attack and steady game from Sunseri. Chryst threw a little bit more than I thought he may like in the first half, but Rutgers has been excellent at taking away the run this year, and the passes were hitting for Sunseri and company.
I was especially impressed with Chryst’s time management at the end of the first half. That’s been an area of criticism for him a lot this season, but I thought he used his playcalling and timeouts well on the final drive, ending in Sunseri’s 13-yard pass to Tinker with seven seconds left in the half.