Been trying to come up with thoughts that strike the right balance in Pitt’s blowout of Gardner-Webb. All the good in the game has to be tempered by the opponent. At the same time, it seems negative to denigrate the performance too much merely because the opponent was so bad.
Let me get the one negative out of the way. With the exception of that huge hole they opened up for Ray Graham on his 78 yard TD run, the O-line was a big disappointment in run-blocking. The pass protection was solid, but the run-blocking looked more like it did against Youngstown State and Cinci. For most of the game, there was no place for the running backs to go in-between the tackles.
Yes, the running game piled up 229 yards, but take out the 78 yard run and the two “carries” for -4 yards by Sunseri and Pitt had 155 yards on 34 carries. That’s a respectable 4.7 yards per carry. Yet, looking closer shows that Pitt collected 73 yards (on 12 carries) in the 4th quarter with Isaac Bennett and Malcolm Crockett running to run out the clock. Did not having Fullback Mark Giubilato available for this game make that kind of difference?
When Graham and Rushel Shell were the primary ball carriers for the first 3 quarters, there was not a lot of yardage gained on the ground. The two had 135 yards on 21 carries, but 91 yards came on just two runs. Shell did not look as strong in the game. He wasn’t hitting the line with the same force he showed last Saturday.
And really, that’s about it.
The bright side to the running game and O-line is that they stayed healthy and did wear down the Bulldogs by the 4th quarter. Making all those runs by Bennett and Crockett possbile. And worth noting, even though Ray Graham fell a handful of yards short of the 100 yard mark for a second straight week, he is still on pace for a 1000 yard season.
The D-line did a nice enough job. Especially without Aaron Donald. Darryl Render did a solid job filling in. Getting his first start as a freshman.
“I just always had to play within myself,” Render said. “I try to mimic things [Donald] does. I wanted to come in and just not miss a beat with AD out.”
From the looks of things Saturday, it was Render who didn’t miss a beat jumping into college football from the high school ranks.
He said Pitt coaches told him during his recruitment that he would play as a freshman, but getting a start just four games into his career was a bit beyond his expectations.
Plus, early in training camp he faced the additional challenge of moving from defensive end to defensive tackle.
Yet here he is, a few months and almost 30 pounds later (Render said he came into camp around 250 pounds, and is now at 277).
Like most freshmen, he said the biggest difference was the speed of the game and the size of his opponents.
“I’m used to just being the top dog and bullying everyone around, but now I’ve got to work a little harder,” he said.
Playing within himself seems to be one of the things Coach Chryst and the coaches are preaching to all the players. Whether it is not trying to do too much. Or knowing what the assignments are. Even though they are rebooting with a new system, it has been kept to the basics.
“I think we’re all understanding our roles and where we need to be to make catches and make plays,” Shanahan said.
The receiving unit is helping each other out on the field, too. In the third quarter of Saturday’s game, Shanahan caught a pass down the right sideline, and Street delivered a crucial block that allowed Shanahan to get loose for a 77-yard touchdown pass.
“I told [Shanahan] I wanted to beat him in yards, so he came over today and said, ‘Thanks for not being selfish,’” Street joked after the game. “So I had to spring the block and he just had a great run after the catch.”
Shanahan said he felt confident the offense would turn things around after Pitt’s 0-2 start, during which the Panthers averaged just 13.5 points per game. Part of that confidence stems from the approach first-year coach Paul Chryst brought to installing his offense.
“He really simplified things,” Shanahan said. “We keep it pretty basic. We run a lot of the same plays. Their philosophy, our philosophy on that is just to simplify things, do what we do well. It doesn’t matter if the defense knows if it’s coming or not because we have things to beat it.”
No one does that apply to more than with Tino Sunseri.
Sunseri put together a second straight, outstanding effort. He didn’t try to do too much. He was solid and accurate with the overwhelming majority of his throws. He’s still hitting receivers further downfield.
Sunseri completed five passes each to wide receivers Mike Shanahan, who had the longest touchdown reception of his career (77 yards); Devin Street, who also scored; and Saddler, who almost scored, getting stopped at the 1 after a 20-yard gain in the second quarter.
“I wish he would have gotten in the end zone,” Shanahan said, “but we told him he has to get in the weight room a little more.”
The day, however, belonged to Sunseri, who also moved to within 21 yards of fifth place on Pitt’s all-time passing list with 6,446 yards.
The comfort level Street and Shanahan have with this offense probably can’t be overstated. They are both playing with confidence and desire right now. The former was definitely lacking last year. The way the receivers are talking, it is clear how happy they are in this system. Almost giddy.
“We didn’t get too high, we didn’t get too low,” receiver Devin Street said. “We knew what we had to do and we just came out here and played.”
Er, not that one. Let me try again.
The Panthers’ big-play ability showed up again when Sunseri found Shanahan for a 77-yard touchdown pass late in the third quarter. Street threw a crushing block that sprung Shanahan for the score.
“I was kind of tired going into that play, but, once Devin threw that block for me, I knew I had to score,” Shanahan said.
One of his wide receivers, Cameron Saddler, said the offense is coming together under Sunseri’s leadership.
“He’s confident in the huddle,” Saddler said. “He’s making sure guys are doing the right thing. That’s what we need out of our quarterback.”
Sunseri spread the wealth against Gardner-Webb. Saddler, Devin Street and Mike Shanahan finished with five receptions each and combined for 331 receiving yards.
Shanahan set a new career high with five catches, 144 yards and two touchdowns. One of these was for 77 yards, making the game 41-10. This surpasses his career-high of 111, which came last week against Virginia Tech.
“There’s a long season left, but it feels great finally seeing some of the hard work that we do in the off-season finally paying off,” Shanahan said.
Quoting senior wide receiver Cameron Saddler
On the recent play of quarterback Tino Sunseri:
“He has been playing really well. Tino is confident. Tino might have more confidence than me, and that’s hard to do. I feel like Tino, he’s ready to go every week. Even today when we were in our team meeting before we came to the stadium, everybody’s just, you know, we’re small talking and what not, and Tino just goes, “Hey, let’s lock in.” That’s what we need from him, to be our leader. He looks so confident. He’s confident in the huddle. He’s making sure guys are doing the right thing. That’s what we need out of our quarterback.”
And that should do it.
What is strange, is that with all the emphasis on execution and keeping it simple, the penalties continue to pile up. Outside of the YSU game where Pitt was only whistled twice, Pitt has averaged 9 penalties/game in the last 3. Coach Chryst is saying that’s something they will work on during the bye week.
The blowout also allowed Shayne Hale and Dan Mason to actually see some action. And even be statistically relevant. Dan Mason, especially, being out there was something. Hey, Coach Chryst! Can you describe the feeling? Was it “special?” “Moving?” Perhaps, “inspiring?”
“The best part about one of these is we kind of took care of business and also got some guys in (the game),” he said. “It was pretty neat for me to see Dan Mason get in at the end there.
“What he has done and overcome, probably a lot of you guys know more than I do. That’s a pretty neat moment.”
Wow. It earned two ‘neats.’