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October 9, 2012

Pitt goes as Sunseri goes




It was written in the Louisville SportsReport's preseason football issue that Pitt's success would hinge on the performance of senior quarterback Tino Sunseri, a third-year starter whose college career had been marked by unfulfilled promise.

So it has been.

The Panthers lost their first two games -- 31-17 at home to Division II Youngstown State and 34-10 at Big East foe Cincinnati -- as Sunseri played poorly. He then had good games against then-No. 13 Virginia Tech as Pitt won 35-17 and against Gardner-Webb (55-10). Then last Friday he had a good but flawed game at Syracuse as the Panthers lost 14-13.

He completed 25 of 33 passes for 319 yards without an interception, but late in the game after Pitt had moved to the Syracuse 15 Sunseri was called for intentional grounding. The ensuing penalty and loss of down, combined with a sack, took the Panthers out of range for a potential game-winning field goal. They had to punt, and Syracuse ran out the remaining four minutes.

To be fair, Syracuse's defensive line dominated, holding Pitt to 27 rushing yards on 37 carries and sacking Sunseri five times for minus-51 yards. Pitt's Kevin Harper also missed a 42-yard field goal in the first half.

Pitt's defense played well enough to win, holding the Orange to just one score and 305 total yards. Syracuse's other TD came on a 52-yard return of a fumble by a receiver in the first quarter that made it 14-0.

So Pitt will be 2-3, 0-2 when UofL (5-0) visits Heinz Field on Saturday seeking to snap a four-game losing streak to the Panthers, who are moving to the ACC next season.

OFFENSE
Pitts is averaging 458.6 yards offense a game, 24th in the country. The Panthers are rushing for 155.4 ypg and passing for 303.2 ypg, 25th in the country.

Sunseri (6-2, 215), as noted above, has been inconsistent throughout his college career, although he has always played well against UofL. He had one of his best games of the season last year against the Cards, going 16 of 22 (73 percent) for 196 yards and a TD with no interceptions and rushing 4 yards for the game-clinching TD that made it 21-7. Pitt won 21-14. This season he is 105 for 152 (69.1 percent) for 1,463 yards (293.6 a game) and eight TDs with two interceptions.

Going into last weekend he ranked 15th in the country in passing efficiency. He has been sacked 13 times and is averaging minus-11 yards rushing per game.

Pitt likes to run the ball and has a couple of good RBs, headed by speedy and shifty senior tailback Ray Graham (5-9, 195), who was on his way to All-American honors last year until suffering a season-ending knee injury in Game 8. He has recovered and has started every game this season, although his production is down. Last year he was averaging 134 rushing ypg, this year 81.8. Last year he averaged 1.3 TDs a game, this year 0.6. Still, he's more than capable, averaging 4.7 yards per carry, although against Syracuse he was held to 57 yards on 24 carries.

Behind Graham is true freshman Rushel Shell (6-0, 215), an Aliquippa Hopewell H.S. product who set a Pennsylvania record with 9,078 career rushing yards. He averaged 8.2 yards per carry and had a national-record 39 consecutive 100-yard rushing games. Shell rushed for 157 yards against Virginia Tech and is averaging 5.1 yards per carry and 57.8 ypg. Hopewell, by the way, is the alma mater of all-time Pitt and NFL great Tony Dorsett.

Pitt also has sophomore Isaac Bennett (5-11, 205), who is averaging 4.9 yards per carry and 25.4 ypg. He rushed for 69 yards (5.3 average) and a TD against UofL last year.

Pitt's leading receivers are junior Devin Street (6-4, 190), who is averaging 5.6 catches and 80.6 yards a game, with two TDs, and senior Mike Shanahan (6-5, 225), who is averaging five catches and 90.2 yards a game, with three TDs. Street had 10 catches for 130 yards against Syracuse, Shanahan four for 83 yards. He was wide open deep against the Orange in the third quarter and would have had a TD, but Sunseri underthrew the ball and Shanahan got caught at the 10. Pitt settled for a field goal.

Freshman kickoff returner Lafayette Pitts (5-11, 195) is seventh in the country at 37.5 yards a return.

Pitt's O-line, traditionally a strength, was embarrassed by Syracuse.

Harper, a senior, is 6 for 10 on FG attempts, with a long of 41 yards. He booted a 52-yarder last year, however.

DEFENSE
The defense, which has been a strength for so many years, is good but not stout. The Panthers are holding opponnents to 21.1 ppg and 301 ypg (134.8 rushing, 49th in the country,185.4 passing, 24th in the country). The leader up front is junior DT Aaron Donald (6-0, 275), who is eighth on the team with 13 tackles despite usually being double-teamed. He has four tackles for a loss, including one sack, and seven quarterback hurries. Against Syracuse he had five tackles, two for a loss.

Pitt's secondary is pretty good and has five interceptions, three by junior cornerback Jason Hendricks (6-0, 180), who also is third on the team with 27 tackles. Senior safety Jared Holley (5-10, 190), a first-team All-Big East selection last year, also has an interception and leads the team with 32 tackles, and junior cornerback K'Wuan Williams (5-10, 190) has the other INT and is sixth on the team with 20 tackles.

Junior middle linebacker Shane Gordon (6-1, 220) is second on the team with 31 tackles, including a team-leading five for a loss.

Junior Matt Yoklic is averaging 43.5 yards a punt.

PLAYERS TO WATCH
Graham may not be 100 percent recovered but still is dangerous. Sunseri, who is not popular with Pitt fans, always has played well against UofL. Donald is a force.

TEAM STRENGTH
The secondary, although Pitt's penchant for playing man-to-man D could be exploited by UofL.

TEAM WEAKNESSES
The O-line, which looked anemic against Syracuse.

COACHING
Paul Chryst, Pitt's sixth head coach in the past three seasons, is in his first head coaching job. He was an assistant for 23 years, 16 at the collegiate level and seven in the pros. For the previous six years he was the offensive coordinator at Wisconsin.

ALL-TIME SERIES
UofL and Pitt have met 15 times in a series that dates to 1976, the year of Pitt's last national championship. Pitt leads 8-7 and has a four-game winning streak. Before that UofL won seven straight.

BOTTOM LINE
UofL should win, but if Sunseri has a good game, it will be close. If not, the Cards by at least a TD.

FAST FACTS
Pitt had two alums inducted to the NFL Hall of Fame this summer, DE Chris Doleman and RB Curtis Martin. That gives Pitt eight HOF members, tied for third (with Ohio State and Michigan) among all colleges. USC has 11, Notre Dame 10.

Pitt has won nine national titles -- in 1915, 1916, 1918, 1929, 1931, 1934, 1936, 1937 and 1976.


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