MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – In commercials last summer promoting Todd Graham’s inaugural season as Pitt’s head football coach, Graham could be heard in his Oklahoma twang talking about running a “high octane offense.”
Graham had great success moving the football at Tulsa where his teams won 10 or more games three times, including last year’s 10-3 record that featured a win at Notre Dame, an appearance in the Hawaii Bowl and a No. 24 national ranking.
But injuries and ill-suited personnel left over from the Dave Wannstedt era have forced Graham to delay his high-octane plan – at least for the time being.
“It’s not the same system,” says West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen. “We are both having a little harder time than at our previous stops. It goes back to what the kids are used to. It goes back to how Pitt and WVU’s players were trained. We both want to play an up-tempo style, but we aren’t doing it as successfully.”
The Pitt team Graham is bringing to Morgantown on Friday night is probably more similar to Wannstedt’s Panther teams than it is to Graham’s Tulsa squads that terrorized Conference-USA the last four seasons. And not coincidentally, Pitt is winning again.
After a midseason stretch that saw the Panthers lose four of five - two of those losses by four points or less to Iowa and Notre Dame - the Panthers are now 3-2 in Big East action, including a big, 21-14 win at Louisville on Nov. 12.
In fact, Pitt’s only really bad performance in Big East action came at Rutgers on Oct. 8 when it lost 34-10. The Panthers’ other league loss was a three-point decision against Cincinnati at Heinz Field on Nov. 5.
Despite losing Ray Graham, the top running back in the Big East, and key offensive performers Chris Jacobson, Cam Saddler, Matt Rotheram and Salath Williams, Graham still has Pitt (5-5 overall) in contention for a Big East title – no small feat considering what he was up against a month ago when his team was just 3-4 after an embarrassing 26-14 loss to Utah.
In that game, Graham yanked starting quarterback Tino Sunseri in favor of freshman Trey Anderson, and it was Anderson’s pick-six throw late in the game that enabled the Utes to pull away with the 12-point victory.
Since then, Graham has gone solely with Sunseri, and he’s also used his quarterback more in the running game. Sunseri ran 12 times for 40 yards and a touchdown in Pitt’s 35-20 win over UConn, he got 64 yards and a TD in Pitt’s three-point loss to Cincinnati, and he ran 14 times for 31 yards and a touchdown in Pitt’s best win of the year, a seven-point win at Louisville to make the Cardinals one of five Big East teams with two losses.
Sunseri’s four rushing TDs this year are the most by a Pitt quarterback since Tyler Palko’s six in 2005. Sunseri has also thrown the ball more effectively since the Utah game, completing 69-of-102 passes for 843 yards and four touchdowns with just one interception. Seven of Sunseri’s eight picks have come in Pitt’s first seven games.
For the season, the junior is completing 191-of-300 for 2,037 yards and nine touchdowns. With Graham on the sidelines nursing an injured knee, Sunseri has become the focal point of Pitt’s offense.
“When you watch him on television, he is fiery and has a lot of energy,” said Holgorsen. “It means a lot to him. He loves to play the game. He is a good player and keeps getting better.”
Wisconsin transfer Zach Brown has assumed the starting tailback job in place of Graham and has rushed for 269 yards and scored four touchdowns, averaging 4.0 yards per carry. Freshman Isaac Bennett has shed his redshirt to take on more of a role in the offense, gaining 95 yards in two games, including a 69-yard, one-touchdown performance in the Louisville win.
“You do not replace Ray Graham – he is one of the better backs in the country,” said Holgorsen. “But it has elevated Tino’s game since Ray has been out. Tino has been the leader of the offense.”
Sunseri’s favorite target is sophomore Devin Street, who shows 39 catches for 572 yards and two touchdowns. Street, at 6-foot-4, is a big target who is really coming on of late, topping 100 yards in his last two games against Cincinnati and Louisville and showing three 100-yard performances for the season.
Mike Shanahan, also a tall target at 6-5, is second on the team in receptions with 30. He has caught at least one pass in nine of 10 games this year, including a season-best two TD catches in the UConn win.
The Panthers are averaging 26.8 points and 371.7 yards per game on offense, but they have scored at least 21 points in each of their last three games.
Yet it is on the defensive side of the ball where Pitt has been the most consistent this season - and where Graham is hanging his hat.
Pitt leads the Big East and ranks 10th nationally in third-down efficiency defense with opponents converting just 32 percent of their third down tries against the Panthers.
In Pitt’s last three games, opponents have been successful on just 8 of 38 third-down tries for 21 percent. The main reason for Pitt’s third down success, according to Holgorsen, is a pass rush that ranks third nationally in sacks averaging 3.2 per game. Sophomore Aaron Donald leads the Panthers and is tied for seventh nationally with an average of 0.90 sacks per game. Seven of Donald’s nine sacks have come in Pitt’s last four games.
“Pitt is high in the country in getting sacks and they bring guys from everywhere,” said Holgorsen. “They are not as big of a blitz tendency like Syracuse and Cincinnati, but they also try to create negative plays in the run game.”
A dominate pass rush has enabled Pitt to cover up some deficiencies in the secondary that were exposed in early season games against Buffalo, Maine and Iowa. However, since the Rutgers game, Panther DBs have only allowed two 200-yard passing performances from Connecticut and Cincinnati.
In its last game against Louisville, Pitt’s pass defense held Louisville to just 165 yards through the air and a long completion of 25 yards.
The Panthers have created just 11 turnovers this year but they have been really stingy giving up yardage, particularly in its last five games. During that span Pitt is only allowing only 296.8 yards per contest.
Friday’s game will be the 104th Backyard Brawl and the 69th annually dating back to 1943. It will be the first time since 1966 that first-year coaches will be working both sidelines (Jim Carlen for West Virginia and Dave Hart for Pitt).
The Panthers have enjoyed some success with first-year coaches in this series with five of the prior seven new coaches having won their first Backyard Brawl (Johnny Majors in 1973, Jackie Sherrill in 1977, Foge Fazio in 1982, Mike Gottfried in 1986 and Walt Harris in 1997). The only two Pitt coaches to lose their first West Virginia game were Paul Hackett in 1990 and Dave Wannstedt in 2005.
Adding extral spice to Friday’s game is the return of assistant coaches Calvin Magee, Tony Gibson and Tony Dews to Milan Puskar Stadium. Those three were on Rich Rodriguez’s coaching staff in 2007 when the Mountaineers lost to Pitt, 13-9, costing West Virginia a shot at a national championship. It’s the first time those three will be coaching in the stadium since then.
“We may have to sneak them onto the field from our locker room,” joked West Virginia defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel, also a member of Rodriguez’s 2007 coaching staff.
As of Wednesday evening, there were less than 1,000 tickets remaining for the game. Tickets are available online through WVUGAME.com. If any tickets are left, those will be available at the stadium ticket office beginning at 5 p.m. Friday.
Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. and the game will be televised nationally on ESPN (Joe Tessitore and Rod Gilmore).