Tino Sunseri completed 21-of-27 passes for 307 yards and three touchdowns. He has eight touchdowns and two interceptions in his last three games. The 307 yards marks the first 300-yard passing game for a Pitt quarterback since Tyler Palko also threw for 307 yards in the 2006 regular season finale against Louisville.
"Tino continued to make progress," Pitt head coach Dave Wannstedt said. "He made some decisions in the second half that he didn't make in the second half, and didn't make the last couple weeks."
Dion Lewis got on track with his first 100-yard game of the season; 130 yards on 17 carries. He was especially important late in the game, including his final play of the game--a 22-yard touchdown run. He ran the ball five of those seven plays, wearing out Rutgers the way he's accustomed to wearing down opponents.
For a second consecutive week, Sunseri spread the ball around to eight different receivers. Jon Baldwin led with 139 yards on five receptions, Henry Hynoski led with seven receptions and tight end Mike Cruz led with a pair of touchdown catches. While Devin Street and Mike Shanahan set up the passing game last week, and eventually stole the show, this week it was players like Hynoski and Cruz setting up Baldwin for a bigger game.
The defense had its most productive game of the season with seven sacks, and limiting the Scarlet Knights to 95 yards on the ground. The Panthers also limited the Rutgers aerial attack--which had averaged 286.5 yards in its last two games--to 108. Tom Savage had 46 of those yards in a relief effort, with the game out of hand. Part of that was the established pressure from Pitt's defensive line, led by Brandon Lindsey's three sacks and another two from Jabaal Sheard. Pitt also had a great performance from the secondary.
"It was great to see Baldwin get back involved," Wannstedt added. "It was great to see Dion have a big day. They were literally triple-teaming Jabaal (Sheard), and then you get guys like Brandon Lindsey to step up and have three sacks. I thought our defensive line showed up."
Things started off smooth for Pitt, as Ray Graham returned the opening kickoff to the 40. Graham also started at running back. On Pitt's first offensive play, Tino Sunseri hit Mike Shanahan for a gain of 22, to quickly set Pitt up in Rutgers territory at the 38. Dion Lewis came back in, and ran for a gain of 22, to get Pitt in the red zone. Then, Pitt beat themselves, as they have all year. The Panthers were called for delay of game, and on the next play--as Sunseri attempted a shovel pass for Graham--defensive tackle Charlie Noonan was there for the interception. He returned the ball to the Pitt 49, where Rutgers took over.
Pitt established the momentum with three big plays to start the game, but lost all of its swagger with the penalty and the turnover.
Rutgers answered with an eight-play, 49-yard yard in a little over three minutes, capped by a Joe Martinek one-yard touchdown run. Rutgers ran the ball seven times for 40 yards on the drive, including twice out of the Wildcat formation. Instead of Mohamed Sanu running it out of the Wildcat, it was freshman receiver Jeremy Deering. The Scarlet Knights gained 21 yards in two plays out of the formation, and converted three first downs on the drive.
"The first drive was the only one that gave us trouble," safety Dom DeCicco said. "They were creasing us a little in the run game, but we only gave up that one touchdown and the punt block. Coach Bennett came in, all the coaches came in, and they saw what was beating us. We got it fixed, and that is why we were able to shut them down."
Pitt's offense went into shutdown mode on its second series. They moved the ball well up until the penalty on that first series, but couldn't get it going the next time around. Lewis had a one-yard gain, and Sunseri completed a seven-yard pass to Jon Baldwin. On a 3rd-and-2, Sunseri was hurried by defensive back David Rowe, and he was forced to throw the ball into the ground for an incompletion. The defense responded though, as Brandon Lindsey sacked Rutgers quarterback Chas Dodd and forced a fumble. Even though Rutgers lineman Desmond Wynn recovered the fumble, it set Rutgers up with a 3rd-and-18, which was too much to overcome.
Still feeding off the momentum of Lindsey's sack, Pitt was able to answer with a 10-play, 66-yard drive, capped by a three-yard touchdown pass from Tino Sunseri to Mike Cruz. Both teams also combined for four penalties on the drive, including a personal foul facemask on Rutgers, which set Pitt up at the Rutgers 25. Though it was a long drive, Pitt only rushed the ball three times--all three with Graham--for a total of 1 yard. The Rutgers defense had one simple game plan for Graham--hit him in the backfield, then gang tackle him. One of Graham's strengths is his ability to bounce off of initial contact. When he was carrying the ball, the Rutgers defense had an extra awareness to get into the backfield and gang tackle him. It was working so far. The same awareness wasn't there when Lewis was carrying the ball.
"We had multiple opportunities behind the line of scrimmage for loss plays," Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano said after the game.
While Rutgers was shutting down the run, they could not contain the pass. Sunseri was a perfect 7-for-7 on the drive, completing passes to four different receivers. Shanahan led the way with two catches for 31 yards. Sunseri also found unusual suspects Henry Hynoski--twice--and Cruz for the touchdown, on a well-executed playaction pass to the tight end. Whether the plan was to get the ball to players like Cruz and Hynoski to just get them the ball, or distract the defense away from Baldwin, the Pitt offense was beginning to click.
"You got Cruz having two touchdowns, you have Henry with seven catches (in the game)," receiver Jon Baldwin said. "You have Devin Street doing a great job. You have Mike Shanahan doing a great job. We got all those guys making plays. You can't just game plan for one guy in particular."
Pitt answered with another big defensive play on the next drive. After collecting a first down on two runs, Chas Dodd was intercepted by Dom DeCicco--his second interception of the season. Pitt couldn't do anything with it, as they were forced to punt on a three-and-out. Sunseri completed a short pass to Hynoski on the third down play, but he was stopped just short of the first-down marker.
Even though the Panthers couldn't capitalize on its previous series, the defensive line kept bringing pressure, and they were starting to wear down the Rutgers offensive line. Jabaal Sheard and Myles Caragein sacked Dodd on consecutive plays to force a punt. Pitt quickly answered. Sunseri went deep to Baldwin--who made a diving one-handed grab in double coverage. Graham ran it in from 13 yards out on the next play, to give Pitt a 14-7 lead.
Rutgers tried to answer, but couldn't, thanks to a chop block. After picking up a pair of first downs and building up some momentum again, Joe Martinek gained a yard to the Pitt 38. Rutgers was forced back into Pitt territory. Dodd was hurried by Sheard on the next play--who lost his helmet in the process. Rutgers punted the ball.
When Pitt took over, both teams showcased a bizarre series of events; turnovers and missed special teams assignments. Despite the big opportunities they gave each other, neither team could capitalize with the exception of a Rutgers blocked punt. After Pitt failed to convert a first down on the ensuing series, Wayne Warren came through untouched, blocking Dan Hutchins' punt at the Pitt 20. Brandon Bing recovered the ball in the end zone, tying the score at 14-14. It was the 44th defensive or special teams touchdown under Greg Schiano.
"Who's ever working with the special teams should have to come in early tomorrow," Wannstedt joked, referring to himself as special teams coach. "That made me sick. They had done that. We had worked on it, and worked on it, and worked on it. We made a decision to go on a quick count. We lined up, and he shifted at the last moment, and we didn't snap the ball. We got the darn thing blocked."
Pitt wasn't done with its special teams errors. The final minutes of the first half resembled the final minutes of the Notre Dame game. Pitt started both of its final offensive series of the first half on its own 9. The first was due to the kickoff being mishandled. After a five-yard gain on first down, Rutgers again brought the pressure on Graham, dropping him for a four-yard loss, setting Pitt up with a 3rd-and-9. Graham took the handoff again, only this time, reversing field and running away from the Rutgers pressure. He turned it into a 30-yard gain. The only problem was that in the process--instead of getting out-of-bounds--Graham had the ball stripped by Joe Lefeged. It was recovered by Colin McEvoy at the Pitt 40.
Thankfully, Pitt's defensive line saved the team. Lindsey came up with his second sack of the game on first down. Lindsey kept rushing his guy, then dove at Dodd's feet as he was going down, making a nice tackle on the play. Dodd intended a pass for Sanu on the next play, who was covered well by Ricky Gary on the play. Wannstedt said this week that Rutgers would go with the deep ball, and here was one of the few times they did. Dodd pump-faked, but Gary covered Sanu well. Sheard sacked Dodd on third down--his second sack of the game, forcing the Scarlet Knights to punt.
"We had some time back there, and we didn't have any open people," Schiano said. "Your commit resource is to help the protection and sometimes it closes some windows on the pass game."
Lindsey, after the game, gave Greg Romeus an assist for his second sack of the game. Romeus gave him a tip from something he was seeing from the sideline.
"On the sideline, before the series even started, I should have had a sack the last series," Lindsey said. "Greg was like, 'Dive at him.' As soon as that opportunity came, I angled it. I was chasing (Dodd), I thought in my head, 'Dive at him,' so I just dove at him."
Even though Rutgers was facing a 4th-and-30, and punting, all Pitt would do was hang on to tie at the end of the first half. Cameron Saddler waved off the punt return--with what looked like some open running room on the left side of the field. Pitt took over on its own 9 again.
This time, it was Dion Lewis back in the game. Lewis ran for 13 yards on the first play, and only got tripped up by himself. He had a gain of seven on the next play. Because of Lewis' two runs, Wannstedt was willing to call a timeout, and set up a passing play and move the ball down the field even further. Sunseri had a pass intended for Street towards the left sideline, who bobbled the ball. Instead of taking one last shot, Hynoski carried the ball for five yards to gain the first half, as Pitt took it in to the locker room.
Pitt had its share of big plays--offensively and defensively in the first half. They also committed big plays in way of turnovers and other mistakes, that was not only preventing them from making any further progress in the first half, but also keeping Rutgers in the game--and giving them life as well.
"We started off, not flat, but we weren't executing," Wannstedt said. "We weren't as sharp. We came in at halftime; had a few penalties. We had three turnovers, including a blocked punt for a touchdown. I told the team, we were going to find out what team we were in the second half."
Rutgers came out in the Wildcat to start the second half. It wasn't Sanu out of the shotgun as Pitt expected, but it was just as effective with freshman receiver Jeremy Deering lining up. He gained eight yards on the first play of the second half, followed by a gain of 15 by Jordan Thomas. The only problem, is that Thomas had the ball jarred loose by Jarred Holley on the play, which was recovered by Max Gruder. With that forced fumble, Holley may have wrapped up his case for a spot on the All-Big East team.
Pitt answered with a six-play, 43-yard drive, that resulted in another Sunseri touchdown pass to Mike Cruz--also off playaction. The guy who set everything up on the drive was Henry Hynoski, and not with his running either. He converted a fourth down, catching a short pass from Sunseri off a bootleg. Hynoski--who established a new career-high with his sixth reception of the game on that play--turned it in to a 20-yard gain, setting Pitt up at the Rutgers 15. Cruz caught the touchdown pass two plays later.
"It's just a bootleg," Hynoski said of the play. "I fake like we're running our main run play, and I come back underneath Tino, he rolls off and dumps it off to me. The defensive end went up field, and I slipped right underneath him."
Trying to answer Pitt‘s touchdown, Rutgers tried the Wildcat again. They converted a first down after a 12-yard gain by Martinek. Then, the defensive line went to work again. Sheard tracked down Thomas for a gain of two--Rutgers' most limited carry out of the Wildcat all day. They brought Dodd back in, facing a 3rd-and-10, and he was rushed out of the pocket towards the sideline and sacked by Lindsey--his third sack of the game.
After the Rutgers punt went out of bounds--a punt of 24 yards--Pitt took over at the 50. They answered with a nine-play, 49-yard drive, that resulted in an 18-yard field goal by Dan Hutchins. Lewis ran the ball five times for 19 yards, but the key play of the drive was a 23-yard pass from Sunseri to Baldwin. Again, Baldwin made a one-handed grab in double coverage. The two one-handed grabs he made Saturday were highlight-worthy, and his overall performance against the Scarlet Knights was his most effective of the season.
"One of (the one-handed grabs) was double coverage, and one of them was man-to-man," Baldwin said. "(On the second one), the safety just came overtop. The first one, I was running, and he grabbed my left arm. I was trying to fight to get it away. At the last second, I had to put one hand up."
Though Pitt wasn't able to punch it in, Dan Hutchins' 18-yard field goal gave Pitt a two-score lead, at 24-14.
Rutgers answered with a three-and-out, punter Teddy Dellaganna shanked another punt, which went 30 yards this time. Taking over in Rutgers territory, Pitt answered with a nine-play, 49-yard drive, that also resulted in a Dan Hutchins field goal. Pitt opened the drive with an empty-set backfield, as Sunseri completed a screen pass to Graham for a gain of 17. He later hit Street for a 10-yard pass. Afterwards, Sunseri had two plays where he rolled out to his right, with a lot of open running room. He forced a pass at the last second--intended for Street--where if he had scrambled, he had enough running room to pick up a first down. It looked like the exact same play was called on the next play. This time, Sunseri scrambled for a gain of eight yards. Still, Pitt was held to a field goal.
Facing some desperation, Rutgers answered with a three-and-out. They opened the next series out of the Wildcat. Sanu--who was lining up out of the formation all year--took his first snap of the day, and was chased out of bounds by Tristan Roberts for a gain of 1. After a holding penalty--the first penalty of the half for either team, Rutgers was facing a 2nd-and-19. Dodd went deep for Mark Harrison, but he couldn't find his target. Buddy Jackson had him well covered. Rutgers punted, and after a return of 12 yards by Cameron Saddler, Pitt took over at their own 47. Though Pitt's defensive line was creating pressure, the corners were stepping up and making plays too.
"Our secondary, we know how much they love to throw the deep ball on us," DeCicco said. "We just played the deep ball all day. Everybody from a mental focus was really good all week and all night, all this afternoon, and I think it all paid off."
It took just 51 seconds for the Panthers to answer. After an eight-yard run by Lewis, Sunseri bootlegged to the right--just like he did earlier for Hynoski. Hynoski was the first look, but he was covered this time. That left it open for Jon Baldwin, who was in one-on-one coverage. Sunseri launched it, as Baldwin leaped up and pulled in the touchdown catch from 45 yards out. Pitt led convincingly 34-14. Pitt showed they had created another weapon in Hynoski--who was the defense's first check on the play. With the pressure drawn away from him, Baldwin was left in a favorable one-on-one matchup to make the play. Afterwards, Baldwin talked about the play.
"You just have to become a basketball player," Baldwin said. "I just tried to box him out. It's like rebounding--you go up and make a play."
Pitt closed out the scoring, with a 23-yard touchdown run from Dion Lewis. Lewis finished the day with 130 yards on 17 carries--his best outing of the season. If Pitt showed anything Saturday, not only did they show off the star power of Baldwin and Lewis, but they also showed how other players getting involved are reciprocal in terms of taking pressure off of these players, in addition to setting them up to make even more plays.
"It was great, we were just trying to put them away," Lewis said. "We talked about finishing this year. We're going to finish every game. We were winning, but we wanted to finish them off, and that's what we did; keep getting hungry."