LEWIS STILL THE STARTER
The biggest storyline coming out of this game might not be the fact that Ray Graham rushed for 277 yards in Pitt's win on Saturday. Instead, it's the commitment to Dion Lewis, as Dave Wannstedt proclaimed Lewis the starter for Notre Dame after the game.
It boils down to the fact that Wannstedt is sticking to his guns, showing full faith in his philosophy. He fully believes that he can effectively run the football with both. He's proved that, but he's proved that by using both running at different times individually. One can be hypothetical, and wonder what Lewis would have done Saturday running behind a revamped offensive line. One can also wonder what Graham would have done to help Pitt in week one, get by Utah.
With Lewis sitting out Saturday, both players have played three games. For the season, and with both players playing three games each, Lewis' production pales in comparison pales to Graham. Lewis has rushed for 143 yards on 47 carries (3.0 avg) with two touchdowns. Graham, even with Saturday's effort, has carried the ball just five more times on the season--a total of 52 carries for 492 yards and five touchdowns. With just under the halfway point to 1,000 yards for the season, Graham is averaging 9.5 yards a carry--unheard of at any level of football.
At this point of the season, it comes down to production. Graham is ahead of production--more than tripling Lewis yards per carry, as well as yard production. The biggest reason for Lewis starting next week is no question Dave Wannstedt's commitment to running the football.
"The way we want to run the ball, I've gone through four tailbacks (in a season)," Wannstedt said.
There really is no right or wrong to who is going to start. Since Wannstedt will use two running backs--at least Lewis and Graham--it doesn't matter which one starts, because they're both going to get involved. However, based on production right now, they will look to lean more on Graham.
CUTTING DOWN THE MISTAKES
While it was a 27-point win, Dave Wannstedt still has some concerns about his team committing too many mental errors. Pitt was penalized 10 times for a total of 64 yards, and also fumbled the ball away once in the red zone. Five of those 10 penalties were pre-snap penalties.
- Instead of facing a 3rd-and-4, Brandon Lindsey is flagged for encroachment. Instead of facing a third down, and forcing a punt, the Panthers give up an automatic first down with their own mistake, keeping FIU's drive alive. Lindsey was called for two false starts on this series, however the Pitt defense was able to hold.
- Jason Pinkston and Ray Graham were also flagged for offsides later in the quarter--Graham's was a rarity, getting called for breaking his running back stance early. Pinkston jumped early turning a 2nd-and-6 into a 3rd-and-11. Pitt finished with four penalties in the first quarter alone.
- Pitt was driving on its last series of the first half, before Mike Cruz was called for offsides. Instead of facing a 2nd-and-6, the Panthers were now faced with a 2-and-11, and eventually punted.
- Cruz later fumbled the ball, after making his first reception since the Utah game. He got the to FIU 15, and fumbled, giving the ball back to FIU with Pitt up 13-10. After Graham set the Panthers up with good field position, Unfortunately. Sunseri completed his pass, but Cruz--who had not caught a pass since the Utah game--fumbled the ball away in the red zone, with Pitt clinging to a 13-10 lead. While the Panthers had a lot to replace on the offensive line heading into the season, their tight ends from last year--Nate Byham and Dorin Dickerson have also been tough to replace. Cruz has not been an effective blocker, and here--despite making a nice catch over the middle, shows a lack of maturity out there with the fumble.
As for the tight end position, while there's been a general concern about the offensive line's struggles this year, the tight end position has to be lumped in there as well. The hardest thing for Pitt right now, is having Hubie Graham sitting this year out. Graham is going to be effective as a blocker and a receiver, and even in practice, looks like Pitt's best option at tight end. Right now though, even with Brock DeCicco still developing, the Panthers don't have too many other options. With Graham out, Cruz is missing a huge opportunity. When Graham returns next year, who knows how much of Cruz we'll see.
OFFENSIVE LINE BETTER?
So far, so good, but it's still too early to tell. Outside of the false start penalty by Pinkston, this unit opened the way for exactly 300 yards rushing. Though a lot of it was Ray Graham, and what he did after the first point of contact, he couldn't have done anything without getting that initial help from the line.
Granted, this performance was against a Florida International run defense that was allowing 150 yards a game on the ground, and a team that had just three front seven players among its top ten tacklers. 300 yards is 300 yards. Consistency is the next step. Wannstedt's move to place Lucas Nix at guard not only helped the line, but now gives the Steelers two physical guards in him and Jacobson. Jacobson had his best game blocking so far this season. Pitt's scheme showed how much a physical presence is needed at right guard.
On top of that, Pitt didn't allow any sacks. This is a team in Florida International that entered the game with eight sacks in its first three games against Texas A&M, Rutgers and Maryland. Though the line will face tougher challenges, this new-look unit is off on the right foot with its performance on Saturday.
SOLID PASSING EFFORT
Tino Sunseri started off 2-of-9 for the game, before Pitt's field goal drive at the end of the first half. On that drive, he completed a key 24-yard pass to Mike Shanahan, which got the ball inside FIU territory. That was a big play for Sunseri, because he had not done much to prove himself to that point.
After that 2-of-9 start, Sunseri completed 13 of his final 17 passes. It wasn't a bad performance, but was one where we saw the things we're expected to see of a Dave Wannstedt quarterback--complete the safe passes, no interceptions, and just manage the game.
If we learned anything from Graham's performance, we see how truly valuable the quarterback is in this offense--it‘s not. This team more than ever relies on a dominant running game like we saw Saturday, with minimal hits in the passing game. This philosophy does not require a dominant passing effort. If it ever relies on one--which has been the case when the run game has been shut down--Pitt will always be in trouble, regardless of who the quarterback is.
Pitt's quarterback play, regardless of who plays, is always going to be second fiddle to the run game. If Sunseri comes up with performances like he had Saturday, his job is safe. Just don't expect Wannstedt to want to throw first or rely on the passing game to secure a Pitt win. That is clearly not his philosophy.
DeCICCO AT LINEBACKER
The other surprise in the starting lineup, besides Graham making the start at running back, was Dom DeCicco starting at linebacker. Wannstedt clarified after the game that it's more of an extra safety, but that it does look like a WILL linebacker. DeCicco responded with six tackles.
This move can only get better from here. Though DeCicco said he had an easy time adjusting to the position switch, whether he was or not doesn't matter. Everything he did Saturday looked natural. He has the instincts in both pass coverage and the physical ability to provide run support.
The biggest support for the move, was how well Jason Hendricks has done, practically being a starter this season (even though it's only two starts) at safety. Obviously with more depth at the safety position than there has been, this move was able to be made. In fact, it opens up a new role for Andrew Taglianetti, and also opens the way for more snaps for Kolby Gray--a player that both Wannstedt and Phil Bennett have raved about in recent weeks.
With a quarter of the season done, Hendricks has shaken off the freshman jitters, and DeCicco can just polish up his new role--whether it's called a linebacker, or an extra defensive back. With every team on the remaining schedule--except for UConn--employing a spread, Wannstedt made this move at the right time. The DeCicco move not only provides more pass support for the secondary, but gives the linebacker position a nice boost.
"Yeah, he's pretty much a linebacker," Gruder said after the game. "He's a big help."