NEW FACES STEP UP
One of the biggest factors for Pitt coming away with a big win at Syracuse on Saturday, was the fact that other people stepped up to do the damage. Take a look at some of the numbers from some guys who are usually in the spotlight. Dion Lewis carried 13 times for 81 yards and a touchdown. Those numbers were a season-high for Lewis, but nowhere close to the averages he hit his freshman year. As Pitt running backs coach David Walker told us this past week, he said the reason Lewis got more carries last year was because he was more in-tune with the offense than Ray Graham, since he enrolled early, and that Ray would eventually learn the offense in time. Perhaps the days of seeing either Graham or Lewis rush for over 150 yards every week are gone. If so, even a performance like Pitt had from Graham and Lewis like they did Saturday seems marginal by their standards, but also takes some of the burden off of them.
Then there was Jon Baldwin, coming off a nine-reception, 110-yard performance at Notre Dame, where he also had a touchdown catch. Baldwin didn't pick up his first reception until the fourth quarter, with the score 35-14. It was a big one--a 61-yarder--which set up a Dan Hutchins 24-yard field goal. Saturday's game may have been the biggest for Baldwin, in terms of the other receivers showcasing what they can do. When preparing to play Pitt, you now have more than Baldwin to worry about, and you can't focus on trying to stop Lewis and Graham.
The coaching staff was proactive in its approach. Instead of waiting for Baldwin to get locked off, they just went for other guys from the start. Street caught the 79-yarder to start the game, Shanahan had his 30-yard touchdown catch, and even Mike Cruz came up with a couple of big catches. It wasn't until Pitt was up 21-7 that Sunseri aimed a deep pass at Baldwin, who is in one-on-one coverage. That in itself--whether it was by design or not--Pitt had they ultimate matchup it wanted with Baldwin in one-on-one coverage, thanks to Shanahan and Street gave the Syracuse defense something else to think about. Bottom line, Pitt opened up Baldwin by getting the ball to other receivers, who stepped up and made plays. Shanahan had four catches for 64 yards and a touchdown, Street had three catches for 82 yards, including the 79-yard touchdown on Pitt‘s first play. Baldwin still showcased his abilities and made an impact with his 61-yard reception.
The gameplan was effective, but more importantly, the younger players executed. Syracuse entered the game leading the Big East in pass efficiency defense, and had allowed five passing touchdowns all year.
Here's a storyline that makes no sense. Pitt's defensive line continues to get better each week. They also seem more settled on a rotation--the most since Greg Romeus had his back surgery last month. For the most part, it was Jabaal Sheard and Brandon Lindsey, with Justin Hargrove filling in for both of them. T.J. Clemmings came in for a series in the third quarter, before getting more regular reps late in the fourth quarter with the rest of the reserves. Defensive tackle was split among Myles Caragein and Chas Alecxih, with Aaron Donald filling in for them. Ty Tkach took a few reps, and Tyrone Ezell came in later in the game. Justin Hargrove also looked like a handful--at times--for right tackle Michael Hay.
The interesting thing is that the starting four defensive lineman finished with a total of five tackles. On paper that doesn't look like much, but they were bringing constant pressure throughout the game. Pitt's only sack came from Lindsey, and that didn't even come until the third quarter.
It was clear on Syracuse's third offensive series, they were getting to Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib. After tying the score at 7-7, Nassib went 0-for-3 over the next two drives. He started missing receivers, and one of his passes went at the feet of an intended receiver. On Jarred Holley's second-quarter interception, Sheard got to Nassib to force a wobbly throw. Holley had plenty of time to get underneath the pass for the interception. Aaron Donald broke through with another hurry, which forced the interception by Ricky Gary, who returned it 80 yards for a touchdown.
NEW FACES ON DEFENSE
Donald was one of the players who stepped up, but one that has been making plays since training camp. Though Gary made the interception, Donald deserves credit for an assist--if there was such a stat--being that his pressure forced the bad throw. Gary even said after the game that he couldn't believe the ball was actually coming to him.
While the rotation is usually pretty heavy on the defensive line, the rotation at linebacker was more constant in this game. Pitt started with redshirt freshman Shane Gordon, Max Gruder and Tristan Roberts. Greg Williams also played a considerable amount at outside linebacker, and Dom DeCicco came up as a linebacker in the dime package. Roberts finished with four tackles, including a team-high two tackles for losses.
Pitt earned good field position thanks to special teams, but also forced Syracuse into tough field position thanks to special teams--mainly the punt coverage. While special teams has been a question mark this season, punt coverage is one area that has been overlooked and one that Pitt has enjoyed success with this year. Dan Hutchins averaged 50 yards a punt on Saturday on four punts. On two of Hutchins' five punts, Buddy Jackson was the guy who made the tackle. Henry Hynoski made two tackles on punt coverage, while the fifth punt was a 42-yarder that sailed out of bounds. On Jackson's two tackles in punt coverage, Syracuse totaled one return yard.
Dave Wannstedt praised the good job done by Cameron Saddler, who finished with 96 total return yards, including a long return of 31 yards that set Pitt up at the Syracuse 22. Pitt took a 14-7 lead on a 15-yard touchdown pass from Tino Sunseri to Ray Graham, thanks in part to Saddler's return.
FRESHMEN, SOPHOMORES LEAD THE WAY
Here's the final tally on every freshman or sophomore (regardless of red shirt year or not). Three red shirt freshmen--Devin Street, Brock DeCicco, Shane Gordon--made their first career starts.
Tino Sunseri : 17-of-24 passes, 266 yards 4 TD (career-high) 0 INT
Dion Lewis : 15 carries, 81 yards, TD
Ray Graham : 11 carries, 53 yards, receiving TD
Mike Shanahan : 4 receptions, 64 yards, TD (first career TD)
Mike Cruz : 2 catches, 17 yards
Cameron Saddler : 4 punt returns, 44 yards (career-high); 3 kickoff returns, 52 yards; long punt return of 31 yards (career-long)
Jarred Holley : 5 tackles, INT (team-high fourth INT on the season)
Devin Street : 3 catches (third week in a row), 82 yards (career-high), TD (first career TD)
Brock DeCicco : 1 catch, 6 yards, TD (first career catch, first career TD)
Aaron Donald : 3 tackles (career-high)
Shane Gordon : 1 tackle, first career start
On Pitt's last offensive series, here's what the offensive line looked like: Jordan Gibbs (LT), Ryan Turnley (LG), Jack Lippert (C), Greg Gaskins (RG), Lucas Nix (RT). It might look questionable as to why other tackles like Cory King weren't used. King is still learning the offense, but with Gibbs breaking in as a new starter, putting him at left tackle keeps him balanced learning both the tackle positions. Putting Nix in at right tackle keeps him refreshed as well Though there's still half a season left to play, the Panthers have a big hole to fill next year when Jason Pinkston graduates. If Gibbs can progress, and get significant work at both tackle spots, it at least gives Pitt some options for the future--more options for 2011 on the line than they had entering this season. They can move him to left tackle, then move Nix back to right tackle, and bump Turnley up to start as one possibility. At the very least, Wannstedt is giving himself some options, looking towards the future.