So, Pitt is 0-1 and looking at a fall to the bottom of the AP Top 25 rankings. A couple of possible goals, albeit wildly unrealistic, are gone. No undefeated season, no BCS title game bid.
Yet despite a ton of penalties, virtually no running game, some head-scratching defensive schemes, an overly conservative offense, red-zone deficiencies, a muffed kickoff return that bounced so far back up field the guy who kicked the ball recovered it, a missed field goal and a turnover on the first play of overtime – all on the road against a top-25 caliber team that has won 17 in a row at home – the Panthers still had a chance to win the game.
That’s the positive spin.
There were one other big bright spot.
*** The secondary, as a whole, played well. The group was one of the question marks coming into the season and they all gave a solid accounting of themselves. Cornerback Antwuan Reed, making his first career start, recorded six tackles (three solo), a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a blocked punt.
His fellow cornerback Ricky Gary carried over his strong training camp and had some sure, open field tackles.
Jason Hendricks, a redshirt freshman seeing his first game action at Pitt, replaced injured Dom DeCicco midway through the first half and finished with six tackles. Even Buddy Jackson, credited with a fumble recovery, did his job when called upon. Not too bad considering DeCicco played about one quarter and Andrew Taglianetti, the team’s nickel back, didn’t play while hobbled a lingering groin injury (though he was conspicuously left on the team’s weekly injury report).
*** Tino Sunseri, at least statistically, had one of the best starting debuts as any Pitt quarterback in the past two decades. He was 16 of 28 for 184 TDs and one INT. More importantly, he got better as the game progressed and seemed to thrive a bit when the coaches finally let him throw the ball.
Dave Wannstedt and offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti were trying to protect Sunseri early on, which makes perfect sense, running Dion Lewis on most first downs.
But the numbers show Sunseri was very effective passing on first downs. Pitt ran a total of 24 plays on first down – 13 rushes and 11 passes. On first down, Sunseri was 7 of 10 for 95 yards and his lone touchdown, a 44-yarder to Jon Baldwin. He completed 70 percent of his passes when aided by a bit of element of surprise. On second and third down, he was 9 of 18 (50 percent) for 89 yards.
He was sacked once when right guard Greg Gaskins, whose play is another issue, got beaten badly. Clearly, Sunseri showed that he can produce when asked to throw the ball, and it was his first start.
Now for some questions marks.
*** I always thought you played for a tie at home and a win on the road. That said, whenj Pitt had a chance to win the game in regulation, driving to the Utah 14 in the final 40 seconds, Dave Wannstedt called a Dion Lewis run. Wannstedt said concern of a sack is the reason the team ran the ball on a third-and-10 from the Utah 14 rather than take a shot into the end zone. Lewis, of course, gained one yard and Pitt kicked the game-tying field goal as time expired.
“We were anticipating a blitz and we wanted to keep ourselves in field goal range,” Wannstedt said.
*** Baldwin said all of the right things after the game, but you have to wonder about red zone play-calling that seemingly ignored the 6-5 junior All-America candidate. Pitt settled for field goals on three red-zone possessions after getting as far as the Utah 8, 4, and 13 yard-lines, respectively. Baldwin wasn’t a target inside the red-zone on any of those trips.
“The coaches call the plays and we just try to execute what we can,” he said. “I don’t speak on us trying to do different things.”
*** The red-zone struggles continued a frustrating trend for Pitt. The Panthers last season settled for a field goal on 20 of their 58 trips into the red zone. Of all Division I teams last season, only Alabama (23) kicked more field goals in the red zone than Pitt (20).
“It comes back to haunt you,” coach Dave Wannstedt said.
*** The offensive line wasn’t horrid, but Gaskins and center Alex Karabin certainly need to improve. One play in particular was Baldwin’s end-around where Karabin, a first-year starter, was turned back toward the line of scrimmage, looking back upfield, while failing to block a defender right behind him. Baldwin was tackled after two yards on what could have been a big play.