October 3, 2011

Suddenly Things Seem Brighter

Filed under: Football — Chas @ 11:08 am

Amazing how a win can change the outlook.

The reigning national offensive player of the week, and Big East Offensive Player of the week — for the second time in five weeks. Ray Graham is doing things not seen before from a Pitt RB.

Ray Graham’s 734 yards rushing represent the best five-game start to a season in Pitt history.

Consider that for a moment.

Curtis Martin didn’t do it. LeSean McCoy fell short; so did Dion Lewis. Not even Tony Dorsett could match it.

Dorsett held the best numbers with 717 yards in five games of 1973. I wish I knew what stretch that was so there could be a better comparison of competition, but I’m not going to go looking for 38 year-old box scores for a side note. Read the rest of the article for a bit on his high school days and recruitment. One more NJ player we can say thank you to Jeff Hafley.

But it is amusing to see the attitude shift. Why, there’s affection for Tino Sunseri. There’s credit to the kid, not just blame.

Sunseri had been taking all manner of grief, probably even while carrying his books to his next class. He was the weak link, the soft-armed, slow-footed quarterback who was killing the Panthers. Never mind how much of the criticism was true and still might be in the future. It stings. It cuts to the core. It can distract, and it can demoralize.

I asked Sunseri how much he let it get to him, and he laughed.

“Well, no one’s a tougher critic than my father,” he said, referring to former Pitt linebacker Sal Sunseri, “so it’s not like getting any kind of break by calling home. But honestly, I felt better every week. I really did. I really felt like this offense was right there. And the best part of everything, for me, is that my teammates were with me. They let me know they believed in me every single day.”

Worse than any of the criticism, it had become clear that his coach was losing faith.

Hopefully this is a game where Sunseri turned the corner. He isn’t fleet of foot, by any stretch, but when he was recruited one of the positives was that he had some mobility. Able to roll out and move around a bit. I was glad to see him use it much more in the USF game. It caught the Bulls off-guard.

By some standards, the biggest star on the offensive side was back-up guard Ryan Schlieper. Forced to play virtually the entire game when Lucas Nix hurt his knee on the second play, the redshirt sophomore and the rest of the O-line had what could be considered their best performance of the season.

The 6-foot-5, 305-pound Schlieper estimated he played “about eight snaps” all of last year. Pressed into action, the former all-state lineman from North Allegheny said quarterback Tino Sunseri, right tackle Jordan Gibbs and Nix, who watched from the sideline, all gave him valuable advice.

“Every time I came off the field Lucas was in my ear,” Schlieper said. ” ‘Keep going out there, give it everything you got. You are doing good.’ It was a great feeling.”

Schlieper is a punishing run blocker. His downfield pull block in the fourth quarter helped spring Graham’s game-high 31-yard run and set up a 41-17 lead with 11:29 to play.

Said Ray Graham, “Schlieper did a great job. He came in and took that opportunity and never looked back with it.”

In a great puff piece on Schlieper, there is this heart-warming portion.

Maybe the biggest news happened after the game, in an emotional Pitt locker room, when Ray Graham didn’t get one of the game balls.

“Coach told Ray, ‘I give you a game ball every week; let’s share the wealth,’ ” Schlieper recalled with a laugh.

So guess who got one? Teammates mauled the kid as Coach Graham flipped him a football and said, “You stepped up, got your chance and proved something!”

There is no timetable for Lucas Nix’s return — the MRI came back showing no damage to the knee. Yet the 2-deep that is out right now for this weekend’s Rutgers’ game (PDF, pg. 4)has Nix as the starter.

Quick tangent for the new 2-deep, Chris Peak notes some changes on the defensive side; including Ejuan Price starting at the Panther (outside) LB spot. Todd Thomas is the starter at Spur (the other OLB). Clearly the coaches are going with the speed and raw talent at the OLB spot, and will live with some mistakes. I can live with that.

As well as the offense played, the defense took a huge step forward with a second straight strong game. Even better, they picked it up in the second half.

Pitt was more physical with the Bulls than they had been with earlier opponents, but safety Jarred Holley explained that the Panthers were a lot more organized before the snap. That led to players being in position to make plays. “It really is as simple as we communicated things a lot better,” Holley said.

“From getting the calls from the sideline quicker, to us making the calls and getting everyone lined up, it was a lot smoother of an operation and it showed.

“We really focused on trying to get lined up right and making sure everyone is on the same page before each snap. It makes a huge difference.”

Holley said communication flow is extremely important because Pitt is learning a new system and also because there are a number of freshmen and other young players on the field.

“Once we got things organized, it worked out well,” he said.

The defense definitely played a much better game, and you could see the growing confidence in the second half — when they actually played much better than in the first half. That said, there is still a long way to go. Pitt still had to burn more than half their timeouts on the defensive side. That has to change.

After the first couple of games of the seasons, I was really bothered by how little an impact the safeties were having in the defense. They were playing too deep to make much of an impact, with opponents focusing on underneath passes and shorter stuff over the middle to take advantage of the linebackers. The USF game, really was a change with Jason Hendricks — but especially Jared Holley getting a lot more opportunity to attack closer to the line of scrimmage.

Holley is soft-spoken and modest, so it was no surprise that he said all his teammates deserve credit for his performance.

“I really think the credit goes to the coaches and a lot of our players, not just me,” Holley said. “I thought [Keith] Patterson did a great job calling defenses, and [Todd] Graham and [Tony] Gibson both did a great job of getting the secondary guys in the right place. And our [outside] linebackers really played great.

“I just think it was a combination of things, but, most importantly, we understood what we needed to do and, as a unit, we were able to do it. I think it showed what we can do when we close out games.”

Holley’s performance included 10 tackles (two for losses), a sack, a forced fumble, at least one touchdown-saving tackle, another tackle that prevented a first down and a great job of putting teammates in the correct positions.

“In a big game like that, I’m just trying to be successful for my team and I’m just glad to win,” Holley said. “I just have a lot of fun with those guys out there and I feel like as long as we have fun and work hard, we can be very dangerous as a defense.”

And he’s got the modesty, team cliches down pat.

Nice article-Big week with Rutgers and this will tell us all how good the team can be. Saw with interest that the Big East Presidents met this weekend and gave the commissioner approval to expand. Good luck with that one commish! Was thinking over the weekend that if anyone had any doubt about the state of affairs of the Big East, perhaps a call to the Maryland/ex UCONN coach Randy Edsell might be in order.Maryland just lost to Temple last week but from a ACC versus Big East perspective there is no compariosn. Left a good team and a good organization for a BETTER,MORE STABLE conference. Wonder what he thinks of the state of flux that UCONN is in now?

Comment by Bruce F 10.03.11 @ 11:48 am

Keep it rolling; big Fav’s next weekend in Piscataway and Utah’s starting QB is ‘shelved for a while,’ forcing in a kid with no starts or experience.

Comment by H.landPitt 10.03.11 @ 11:48 am

I agree that things are looking much brighter but lets not get too euphoric. In the past Pitt has been guilty of not winning games against vastly inferior teams. This Saturday against Rutgers we need to see the same team that easily handled South Florida. Pitt needs to keep moving forward in their grasp of these new systems. Sunseri needs to keep improving.

Comment by John In South Carolina 10.03.11 @ 11:53 am

Does anyone know the gametime for the Pitt/Utah game? I am going to the game, but it looks like every site says TBD on the schedule. It’s only two weeks away.

Comment by GDodson 10.03.11 @ 12:47 pm

After a game is won much easier than expected, there appears to be a natural letdown for the following game.

A recent example would be Temple destroying Maryland at Maryland, then getting thrashed at home by Toledo this past Saturday. A classic example would be RichRod’s 1st year (01) at WVU (with one T Graham as an assistant) where they went to NJ and beat Rutgers 70 – 7, then lost at home the next week to lowly Temple.

Note that after playing physical lines of Iowa and ND, Pitt completely dominated both sides of the line of scrimmage vs USF who played 2 powderpuffs the previous games. This game vs Rutgers will be more challenging, if for nothing else, Rutgers will match their physicality.

Comment by wbb 10.03.11 @ 1:44 pm

I watched Rutgers in their game at Syracuse. They are a physical team that likes to run the Power I, much like they did a few years ago when the Ray Rice. They have big wide recievers who will give the DB some match up problems. I do not expect this to be a cake walk.

Comment by Justinian 10.03.11 @ 1:58 pm

Utah game just announced noon start on ESPNU… Let the complaining begin.

Comment by FG 10.03.11 @ 2:03 pm

I am really worried about this game at Rutgers. This is game will require some serious coaching up on Todd’s part, and right now I’m calling a loss. Let’s hope we don’t lose to another inexperienced QB that transforms into Tom Brady before our eyes (ala NC state, Iowa, ND, etc).

We are going to have to air it out with Tiny to win this one, IMHO…because Ray will be stuffed at the LOS.

Comment by Pauly P 10.03.11 @ 2:51 pm

first 5 games of 1973 results – from
link to

09-15-1973 Pitt 7 Georgia 7 Athens, GA
09-22-1973 Pitt 14 Baylor (TX) 20 Pittsburgh, PA
09-29-1973 Pitt 21 Northwestern (IL) 14 Evanston, IL
10-06-1973 Pitt 6 Tulane (LA) 24 Pittsburgh, PA
10-13-1973 Pitt 35 West Virginia 7 Morgantown, WV

Comment by KeyboardKev 10.03.11 @ 3:08 pm

did you see that freshman Gary Nova who had previously committed to Pitt, finished the game at QB for Rutgers?

Comment by wbb 10.03.11 @ 3:47 pm

Let’s not forget that Rutgers will certainly have some bitter motivation for this one as well… At least 2 former Pitt assistants left out in the cold and at least a couple recruits who changed their minds…

Expecting a tight, physical contest. A good chance to see if this is indeed a different Pitt…

Comment by Bowling Green Panther 10.03.11 @ 4:39 pm

Nova looked good (confident)and so did Huggins. I think Dodd gets the start but will have a short leash.

Pitt needs to work hard this week and get focused or they are going to get it handed to them. One great game does not a season make. That said…I see a big game for Lindsey and the rest of the Dline to leave their mark on their Pitt careers against their old coaches. You can’t be 10-2 if you are not 4-2 first! Focus gentlemen. Leaders need to lead right now!

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