Strictly speaking this wasn’t Pitt’s biggest win since the 2007 Backyard Brawl. In 2008, Pitt upset then #10 USF in Tampa. USF, as per their usual thing, did not finish the year in the top-25 — so it does not have quite the same lasting effect. I feel reasonably comfortable saying that VT will still finish in the top-25 by the end of the year so this one looms larger than other wins since 2007.
Here’s the list of games Pitt has won against top-25 teams in the last few years with the team’s rank at the time in parenthesis:
- 2007 – Cinci (23) – 24-17
- 2007 – at WVU (2) – 13-9
- 2008 – at USF (10) – 26-21
- 2011 – USF (16) – 44-17
And that’s it.
Worth noting, though, that since 2007 Pitt has only had 8 games where the opponent was ranked (and Cinci accounted for 4 of those games). So, I guess 4-4 isn’t that bad.
In case you haven’t seen it, the Pitt Athletic Department has a highlight clip of the game.
The more I think about it, the more surprising it is. Pitt did the exact opposite of what it did in the Miami game in 2010. Despite the bad start, Pitt stuck with its plans to bring back a lot of past greats. They had the basketball team on hand. They stuck with promoting this game and the past greats. The huge contingent of recruits on hand. And the team came out and lit up the Hokies. Despite everything negative, they rose up for the game.
We’ve already touched on Tino Sunseri’s game. Obviously no one missed the performance by the running backs. Before the game, the media buzz was that Ray Graham did not look good for this game. That he looked stiff in warm-ups. Since Coach Paul Chryst is part of that ever growing contingent of college football coaches that believes that there is some tactical advantage to be gained by not revealing injury status of players — unless they are obviously done for the year — no one was sure whether he could go.
“You’ve got to run,” said senior Ray Graham, who rushed for 94 yards. “You’ve got to be physical in this game.”
Graham scored three touchdowns, two rushing and one receiving. His rushing touchdown on Pitt’s opening drive was his first since returning from offseason ACL surgery.
Graham’s 94 yards came on 24 carries. It was a strong performance by Graham who had the ESPNU playcalling crew convinced Chryst had sandbagged them in interviews on Friday, and that Graham was in on it with the way he was in warm-ups. Instead, in the first half he had 65 yards on the ground. He was moving well and making the VT defenders miss.
Then it was the Rushel Shell show in the second half.
Shell split the backfield time with incumbent Ray Graham, and the two combined for 251 yards. Certainly the switching of styles — Shell is a straightforward runner, Graham is more finesse — was part of Shell becoming the first Pitt true freshman in three years to run for 100 yards (157).
103 of the 157 yards came in the second half. He was not simply a complete change of pace for a VT defense that was trying to contain Graham. He bulldozed them and had them completely off-balance as they got dragged or plowed by him.
On Pitt’s first drive of the fourth quarter Saturday, the Panthers took the field leading, 28-17, seemingly needing one more score to seal the deal for an upset win.
Freshman running back Rushel Shell lined up in the backfield behind quarterback Tino Sunseri. He took the first two carries of the drive and delivered a clear message: Pitt was going to finish off this game.
Shell delivered physical runs of 13 and 29 yards to kick-start a drive that ultimately ate up 7:44 and ended with a game-sealing touchdown pass from Sunseri to Mike Shanahan.
Playing his first game for Pitt at Heinz Field, Shell looked every bit the player who was touted as one of the best high school running backs in the country. He ran for 157 physical yards, unafraid to lower his shoulders and initiate contact against more experienced Hokies defenders.
“He’s running with confidence and he feels good about himself,” senior running back Ray Graham said of Shell. “He’s just getting better from here.”
Or as Hokies Coach, Frank Beamer put it.
“I thought (No.) 4 was a hard guy to bring down,” coach Frank Beamer said, referencing Shell’s jersey. “But you’ve got to run through that guy. He’s a load. … Make sure you’re in the right gap and stay in the right gap. Their runners are good. Their patient, their patient, their patient and then there’s a little hole right there.”
And it wasn’t just missed tackles. The Hokies sacked Tino Sunseri only once and allowed 283 yards passing, including completions of 40, 33, 23 and 22 yards.
Feels weird to write this, even a couple days later, but the O-line was outstanding. Yes, Matt Rotheram had a rough day (2 false starts, 1 holding and beaten badly for the one sack in the game), but considering this was a day where the offense ran 83 plays — and actually opened holes for Shell and Graham to run through. That’s still tolerable.
Shell talked how he views things.
“Rushel, he don’t play like a freshman,” said senior Ray Graham, who split the running duties with Shell.
“This was definitely a big confidence-booster,” Shell said.
“It shows me I can excel at this level. I just got to keep working hard and not really take this to my head and not think, ‘Oh yeah, I did this and I did that.’ It’s ‘What am I gonna do next?’ ”
The energy by Pitt players was noticeable. Shell spoke of how he was jumping up and down on the sidelines in the second half, pumped and eager to get back out there.
The defense matched that energy. Initially they were looking like they would give the score back in the opening drive. Being unable to get the stops. But the big interception seemed to completely change them. Shane Gordon of the much-maligned linebackers led the way.
One yard the Hokies failed to gain proved to be huge. Trailing, 21-10, early in the third quarter but driving, Virginia Tech runners were stuffed on third-and-1 and again on fourth-and-1 on the Pitt 35-yard line.
Linebacker Shane Gordon got credit for the initial stops on both plays.
“The big play in the game,” Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer said.
Pitt took over and marched down the field to score on Tino Sunseri’s 12-yard touchdown pass to Ray Graham, essentially sealing the win.
“I was so hyped,” said Gordon, who showed his best speed when he joyfully sprinted to the sideline after the change of possession. “It felt good. Get off the field. That’s a big momentum swing when you stop ’em like that. It’s a big momentum swing for me. Virginia Tech, I don’t know how they felt.”
VT players feel like they got outplayed and outworked.
“They came out the most prepared and they came out to play,” said Hokie redshirt freshman linebacker Ronny Vandyke. “We can’t just come out here, especially in an away game, thinking we’re just going to take it. We have to come out there fighting harder than our opponents. They fought harder than us.”
Part of that was simply this looked like a different Pitt team than anyone — and I mean anyone — saw in the first two games.
“Their first two games, they didn’t play as hard as they did today,” [Logan] Thomas said. “They’re a good defense. They’re strong, they’re physical, they’re fast and they make you make mistakes. They did that today.”
I can’t disagree with that. There was so much missing from Pitt in the first two games. That accounts for some of it. Then there is the usual, “we just had a bad game” stuff from VT players.
“We didn’t come to play,” Tech senior wide receiver Marcus Davis said. “We tried to turn it on and things went wrong. It was like, ‘It’s over.’ We didn’t really play our game today.”
Graham finished with 94 yards as Pittsburgh outgained Virginia Tech 537-324, gashing the Hokies’ vaunted defense. Splitting time with Graham, Rushel Shell, who was suspended for the Panthers’ first game for an undisclosed reason, rushed for 157 yards on 23 carries.
But it didn’t matter who was running the ball. Tech (2-1) blew coverages in the secondary and missed tackles all over the field.
“It just wasn’t our day,” senior linebacker Bruce Taylor said. “We had way too many missed tackles. I really wish we had a second chance to play them. We were in the right spots. It was jut kind of missing tackles.”
Well, since Taylor is a senior, he won’t. But the rest of the team will be seeing Pitt fairly regularly.
Well, for VT, maybe they can make that argument defensively. Perhaps. But not offensively. As the Q&A last week revealed there were real questions about the offense after Logan Thomas, even among the Hokie faithful. It starts with their lack of a running game.
If you’re looking for single-game problems, the defense stood out Saturday. But if you’re looking for season-long problems, it’s the running game, plain and simple. Virginia Tech had 59 rushing yards Saturday, with only 22 coming from its tailbacks. The game’s direction was no doubt part of the reason for the low total (you don’t run the ball exclusively when you’re down 21-0), but the Hokies have not been able to simply line up and run the ball when they want to against anybody. Their run totals so far this season — 96, 187, 59. They haven’t had two games with fewer than 100 rushing yards in a season since 2009, when Alabama and Nebraska held them below the century mark. But those were two all-time rush defenses. It’s safe to say Tech has not played one of those yet this year.
There’s plenty of blame to go around. It’s clear at this point that the offensive line is simply not getting the push that’s required to open some of these holes, or at the very least, isn’t good enough to do it on a consistent basis. The biggest illustration of that is Tech’s short-yardage tries Saturday. In the third quarter, Logan Thomas was stuffed on a sneak on third-and-1 before Michael Holmes got stopped on fourth-and-1. Neither attempt appeared close. And neither ballcarrier could get close to the line before a defender was on him. That’s on the line.
But the running backs have to shoulder some of the blame too. Shane Beamer has long insisted that he has four running backs he can trust to put out there. But it appears to be along the lines of the saying about quarterbacks: if you have four running backs, you have no running backs. The Hokies don’t look like they have the guy who can shoulder the load this year. Holmes had 6 yards on 9 carries Saturday, with a costly fumble. Coleman had 4 carries for no yards. The back who looked the most comfortable was Martin Scales, who showed great burst on a 10-yard run and ran right up between the tackles a few plays later on a 6-yarder. He had only four carries, though. You wonder if that will increase if subsequent weeks. The bottom line, though: there isn’t a David Wilson in this group. And for onlookers like myself who thought the running back would be easily replaceable within the scheme, that’s clearly not the case.
“We moved the ball all day,” quarterback Logan Thomas said after Saturday’s 35-17 loss to unranked Pittsburgh. “We got inside their 40 and then we just stopped and sputtered. I don’t know what it was. … but when we got inside (midfield) we just fell apart.”
Not exactly moving between the 20s.
Back to the Pitt side of things. Coach Chryst is sticking with the whole “one game at a time, you are only as good as your next game” stuff.
“We’ll find out,” he said. “That’s the great thing about sports. We have to do it again.”
No party hats for a team that, after all, is 1-2.
Not even any feelings of redemption after two tough losses to open the season.
“I don’t think it erases anything,” said Chryst, moments after listening to his Panthers sing the university fight song as a tribute to his first victory as a head coach.
All it did was show the team what might happen in the future.
“It reinforces the game and how you play it and how you prepare for it,” Chryst said. “I love the way they competed, love the way they stayed true and worked throughout the process.”
I imagine he finds it “neat.”