High octane enough?
Last time Pitt played a nationally televised Thursday night game the Panthers only posted three points. Ray Graham and the offense bested that total by 41 last night.
Pitt’s newest elite running back gashed the South Florida defense to the tune of 226 yards rushing and two touchdowns. With the performance, LaMichael James and Marcus Lattimore need 120+ yard rushing games just to reach Graham as the nation’s number one running back.
With 268 total yards Graham was the story of the night. There were, however, a few other encouraging signs that the Panthers may be rounding the corner. As Tino Sunseri said in the post-game press conference, “I told ya’all we were close.”
If you haven’t already guessed it, Sunseri’s play is the first encouraging sign. He made every correct decision last night. He did not force the ball or hesitate on the option reads. The former Central Catholic QB even racked up 35 yards rushing and a touchdown. Most importantly for Sunseri, there were no turnovers. Patience was the key to his game.
Sunseri’s skill has never been the problem. His arm strength and wheels are impressive. Even his accuracy is solid. The problem has been his decision making and tentativeness. He showed neither against the Bulls last night.
Sunseri cannot play as though he is afraid to make a mistake. He didn’t last night and played his best game of the season because of it.
Another pleasing detail last night was Pitt’s offensive line. The injury to offensive guard Lucas Nix is potentially devastating, but the line played very well without their star. South Florida’s defensive line was bullied all night in the running game and the Bulls only forced one turnover. Sunseri was sacked three times but one loss came on an attempted rush and the other one was on a half-ending Hail Mary attempt—hardly anything to complain about.
Pitt also dominated South Florida on defense. The Bulls’ 17 points were their lowest output this season and QB BJ Daniels was held without a passing touchdown for the first time in 2011.
Todd Thomas, Jared Holley and Andrew Taglianetti all stood out.
“If Graham was the star of the offense, the defensive star was old Purple Rain - safety Jarred Holley - who was just a man among boys and all over the field making plays. But as much as he does physically, mentally he is three steps ahead of everyone else and he really did a great job of getting people into the right places. I also thought Todd Thomas had an excellent game and almost made a highlight-reel worthy one-handed interception.”
Holley is excelling in the aggressive safety role that he is playing. The Pitt junior forced a fumble and was a nuisance all night.
Thomas was also terrific. He is an outstanding athlete who is capable of being an All Big East selection. Most encouraging about Thomas is that he looks to be picking up his pass coverage quite well. He has the skill to stay with his man and is now making the right reads.
No. 8 is great against the run as well. He totaled six tackles and was Pitt’s leading run-stuffer against USF. Thomas has been a presence in the backfield and is getting better with each game. The freshman is oozing with potential and could be an All-American someday if he keeps up this progression.
Taglianetti is a player I often raved about. He is a third down specialist who can step back into pass coverage, rush the quarterback, or stuff the run. His hybrid safety/linebacker style is perfect for this team. He causes havoc when he is on the field and last night was no different. Thanks to Taglianetti and Holley, Pitt’s secondary has quickly turned into a legitimate unit. K’Waun Williams has played a role in the transformation as well.
One player who has been a disappointment to many thus far is Brandon Lindsey. The Aliquippa native excelled last year in his defensive end position but was transitioned to the Panther hybrid linebacker role this season. When Lindsey failed to pick up the position he was moved back to DE.
Last night may have been Lindsey’s best game of the season. He recorded one sack and deflected a pass. Despite his strong pass rush, Lindsey has never been a great defender against the run. Against South Florida he showed improvement. In fact, the game against USF was an example of how much he has improved in that aspect of the game. He still is not going to be mistaken for Greg Romeus, but Lindsey has developed.
Overall, the defensive line wasn’t outstanding. Pitt surrendered 202 yards rushing and the Panthers linebackers were often times the ones stopping the run. One positive to take away from this is that the LB’s stepped up their game. The position has long been a sore spot for the Panthers but finally looks to be improving.
A final hint of criticism in an otherwise perfect game was Pitt’s lack of big plays. Sunseri only averaged 6.5 yards per pass and no wide receiver eclipsed 12 yards per catch. Keep in mind that the normally sure handed Mike Shanahan did drop a probable touchdown pass that would have boosted Sunseri’s average significantly. Graham did his part on the ground but in order to be successful against better teams Pitt will need to at least threaten downfield. Thankfully, the Panthers won’t face too many tougher challenges this year.
This was exactly the type of game Pitt needed. The Panthers ran 81 plays, scored on eight of their 12 legitimate possessions, and posted 523 total yards. You have to walk before you run. The big plays will come in time. For now, it is nice to see the Pitt offense clicking at a ‘high octane’ pace.