Pitt Mid-Season Awards

Today, we look at Pitt's offensive and defensive player at the midway point, as well as some of the individual performances that have stood out so far.

Ray Graham. Though he's not even considered the starting tailback, here's a brief look at what Graham has done this season:

- 1st in the Big East and fourth nationally with 180.6 all-purpose yards a game
- 3rd in the Big East in both total rushing yards (536) and rushing yards per game (134).
- Put together a string of three consecutive 100-yard rushing games, including a 277-yard performance in Week 4 against Florida International.
- Graham gave the offense a big boost in Week 2 with a 64-yard touchdown run against New Hampshire--a play that came in the fourth quarter against the Wildcats, after the running game looked sluggish for the first seven quarters of the season.

Jabaal Sheard. For a player who started off the season with an off-the-field incident, and eventual indefinite suspension, Sheard has responded; both as a player and as a leader, with Greg Romeus lost for much of the season due to injury. Here's a look at what he's done:

- Six games in, Sheard has tied his sack total from last year (5), and is just a half-sack away from tying his career-high sack total set in 2008.
- Sheard sacked Notre Dame quarterback Dayne Crist on the opening play of the game, and also came up with two big sacks against Miami. Though he didn't have a sack against Syracuse, he hurried quarterback Ryan Nassib into throwing an interception that was picked off by Jarred Holley.
- Anchors a defensive line that has figures in big in Pitt's run defense. Pitt has allowed an average of 92 yards a game on the ground.

Jason Hendricks. Coming out of high school, Hendricks was the No. 148 cornerback in the country, choosing the Panthers over offers from Akron, Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan, James Madison, Syracuse and Temple. Here's a look at some of the reasons supporting Hendricks:

- He has played in all six games, starting three at safety. He filled in admirably for an injured Dom DeCicco, who missed the New Hampshire game with a hamstring injury, and the entire second half of both the Miami and Utah games--two games where Hendricks also filled in.
- Is noted as a player who plays that game at a fast pace. He has shown it by ranking fourth on the team in tackles, with 27. He recovered his first career fumble in the last game at Syracuse.

Jon Baldwin
Though Baldwin still leads the team in receiving, with 25 catches for 383 yards and three touchdowns, he hasn't put up the All-America type numbers we expected. The scary thing, is that among the rest of the Big East receivers, he will still likely be an All-Big East performer based on the production of some of the other receivers in the conference. Baldwin should have a more productive second half of the season, with receivers such as Mike Shanahan and Devin Street more comfortable in taking the pressure off him, as well as a more seasoned Tino Sunseri throwing him the ball.

Tony Wise. Even though the offensive line has looked much better since the switch of Lucas Nix to right guard, and Jordan Gibbs starting at right tackle, consider the weight on Wise's shoulders. It didn't work out for Gaskins at right guard, as the line needed a more physical player. Instead, Lucas Nix moved to a new position, and Gibbs made his first career start just three weeks ago. For a line that's not too deep, and for having to start all over with the gelling and players learning new responsibilities, Wise has kept the unit together, and got the ship righted.

Tie between the offensive line switch and Dom DeCicco moving to linebacker/nickle back. In its first three games, Pitt averaged 126.3 yards on the ground, while the passing game produced three touchdown passes and four interceptions. Since the switch, Pitt has averaged 177 yards a game on the ground, while Tino Sunseri has completed 59-of-86 (68.6%) for 722 yards with six touchdown passes and just one interception. On top of that, the line has allowed four sacks in the last three games, after allowing nine sacks in its first three games.

DeCicco earned Defensive Player of the Week honors at Syracuse from the coaching staff, after what Wannstedt called his best game in a Pitt uniform. This, after playing two games at linebacker. Facing more spread-oriented teams, the move looks like a brilliant one, with DeCicco's experience as a safety and ability to be physical. Going back to the team's rookie of the half-season, the move wouldn't have been possible if the coaching staff didn't trust Jason Hendricks starting at safety.

Tino Sunseri's 79-yard touchdown pass to Devin Street to open the Syracuse game. The screen pass is a popular one for Frank Cignetti to call, but most of the time it results in minimal yardage. This time, it not only worked, but went for Pitt's longest play of the year. It also set the tone for a big win to open conference play.

Tie between plays called at Utah and at Notre Dame. Pitt running the ball with Henry Hynoski to end the first half at Utah. Pitt started at their own 20 yard-line, with 1:37 left in the half, trailing 14-7. With eight seconds left, and the ball now at the Pitt 29, Pitt called timeout. Hynoski got the ball, and gained six yards, but the offense had more than enough time to run a two-minute set, to at least get in field goal range. Judging by the game's outcome, it's one instance where Pitt could have improved its chances of pulling off the victory.

The other nomination, is the play calling at the end of the Notre Dame--either running the ball for short yardage, with just over four minutes left, or the timeout called two plays later. After calling timeout on third down--after an incompletion, which already stopped the clock--Pitt contemplated going for it on fourth down. Pitt got the ball back one more time, but could not succeed.

In a game that comes down to inches sometimes, Pitt lost both games by a combined nine points. Had things gone a little differently in both of these instances, the Panthers might be sitting at 5-1 instead of 3-3.

Ray Graham's 15-yard reception against Florida International. It's hard to believe, thinking of the final score, but Pitt led 23-17 with just over 10 minutes to play in the final quarter. Facing a 3rd-and--13 on its own 6, Tino Sunseri hit Graham with a short pass over the middle. Graham turned up field, then was brought down at the 19. His last-second effort as he was being brought down, stretched the ball to the Pitt 21. On the next play, Graham took off for a 79-yard touchdown run. Though the run was impressive, it would have never happened had Graham not made the extra effort on third down.

Any of Jarred Holley's interceptions. Of all of them, though, his first interception at Utah was key. He picked it off in the end zone, with Utah looking to go up 21-7. His interception setup the drive that was answered with Pitt running out the clock. Had he not picked off the pass, Pitt's momentum could have gone down even further--as Utah rallied back in the second quarter. Thanks to Holley's interception, Pitt was able to keep it close in the second half, and had a chance to win it.

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