Because this has been a bye week we’ve had 13 days to reflect on the 2-2 start PITT has had so far and have looked both at the wins and losses from many different angles. However, we are still collectively scratching our heads as to just what sort of football team we actually have in Paul Chryst’s first season as our head coach.
To recap: we shat the bed in a 31-17 loss against YSU; play pretty poorly again in a 34-10 drubbing by Cincinnati; played to a convincing win against a 13th ranked Virginia Tech which was even more lopsided save a VT punt return and a 85 yard passing TD then soundly beat a lesser opponent in Gardner Web in a 55-10 rout.
Huh? So which of those games is the real indication of what this 2012 team is made of? Well, that isn’t easy to answer. Sometimes if you peel back the scores and look at how a team actually played football in their games, regardless of wins or losses, you can get to the tenor of how the team produced on the field.
Prior to this season most PITT fans felt that, on offense at least, the running game was going to have to pull the weight given Tino Sunseri’s poor play in 2011. That wasn’t an unreasonable thought given that we had Ray Graham, arguably the best RB in college football, along with Isaac Bennett returning and true freshman Rushel Shell arriving on the scene. That’s an impressive stable of running backs to rotate carries through.
But what have we actually seen out on the playing field when it comes to these two phases of offense? On the face of it the running game is producing. At present we are running at a rather average overall clip. We have rushed the ball 162 times for 750 yards and seven TDs. That’s 4.6 ypc and while that isn’t poor it certainly isn’t the hallmark of a strong running team.
I like to look at how the stats shake out when you drop the big outliers. If we take Ray Graham’s 78 yard TD away he’s carrying the ball at a 4.3 ypc rate. Of course he did run for that nice long TD but on the whole when he’s been given the chance he’s been pretty average moving the ball forward.
Rushel Shell blew up in the VT game going for 157 yards at 6.8 ypc. That was a great effort. However in his other two games, he was suspended for the opener, he’s 21 rushes for 72 yards at a 3.4 rate. These are the earmarks of an inconsistent running game and, to me at least, that is very worrisome.
Jump to the passing game and we see much more consistency over these four games. Sunseri is currently 80/119 for 1144 yards with 67.2 % completion rate and has eight TDs to two INTs. Damn good stats all around. Perhaps most impressive is that he’s averaging 9.61 yards per attempt with a 14.3 yards per completion rate – and that’s without all those silly bubble screens and quick passes out to the WRs at the line of scrimmage that we saw the last two years. Those are big time numbers for our QB and show that he’s throwing, and completing passes, downfield which was a major concern over the off season.
These are gaudy numbers that have landed him at 15th nationally in Passing Effeciency; 20th in Passing yards per game and, least importantly IMO, 46th in Passing which is only based on completions per game. However, does that tell the whole story in Sunseri’s play so far? No, it doesn’t.
He’s played well so far but his lack of consistency, while lesser than in years past, raised its ugly head again in our Cincy loss. Twice he had opportunities to close the gap and keep PITT in that ball game and twice he failed to do so.
In the 2nd quarter PITT was trailing 14-0 but had just held Cincy to a three and out when we took the ball on the Cincy 39 after a nice 18 yard return by Saddler. Sunseri completed a 31 yard pass that helped us overcome two penalties and get us to the 12 yard line. He then threw a bad pass for an interception at the goal line to ruin a shot at closing the gap to 14-7.
On our next series, now down 17-0 Sunseri led a 11 play drive going 6 of 9 for 63 yards to get us to the Cincy six yard line only to have a complete freeze up and hold the ball too long and throw the ball away while the clock ran out. This is what we fans feared prior to the season starting, the same mistakes he made so regularly in 2011.
Now, the fact is that he actually played some pretty good QB in that game save for those two plays. He went 27 of 37 for 278 yards, a 73% rate, with a TD to go along with that INT. That should be good enough to win most football games.
The good news is that that was the second game of the season and in the two following games he has settled down and played excellent QB in big wins against VT and Gardner-Webb. The question then is if this solid play trend will continue in tonight’s game against Syracuse.
No one really knows what animal this PITT team is right now. The outcome of this evening’s game will answer the questions raised above. How dependable is our running game and how consistent can Sunseri be in his play on the field? A win tonight, hopefully an offensively balanced win, would go a long way to making us feel that this team has shaken of the horrors of that 0-2 start and is on stable ground taking a 1-1 record into the remaining Big East schedule.