In a battle of two of the Big East's top rushing attacks, UConn was able to hold on for a 30-28 win over Pitt in front of a nationally-televised audience on Thursday night.
Pitt didn't have an answer for UConn running back Jordan Todman, who rushed for 222 yards yards on 37 carries. Pitt had a combined 29 carries for 150 yards from Dion Lewis and Ray Graham, in addition to three rushing touchdowns from its backfield tandem. Pitt's woes came down to mistakes and an inability to stop Todman.
"Their offensive line was blocking us; they pushed us around to be quite honest," Pitt head coach Dave Wannstedt said. "I thought we also missed several tackles where we had a chance to get him to the ground and we didn't. He played extremely well. He is the best running back we have faced this year; without a doubt."
Aside from Todman running all over Pitt's defense--the most yards allowed by an individual back since Pat White (220) and Steve Slaton (215) of West Virginia did so back in November of 2006--the mistakes Pitt made on Thursday night were uncharacteristic of this team.
Though he's thrown interceptions before, Tino Sunseri threw two interceptions. He had thrown a total of two interceptions over his previous six games. The first one was on a pass intended for Devin Street. The Huskies had double coverage on the play. The ball was under thrown a bit for where Street was, and instead went where the coverage was. His second interception was partially the fault of Jon Baldwin, who had time to come back to the intended pass, but didn't.
After the game, Sunseri took fault in the passing game.
"I'm in charge of the offense, and I need to take control," Sunseri said. "I made too many mistakes tonight. I need to go back and look at it, fix it and make those corrections."
Interestingly, two areas where Pitt has needed improvement all season has been cutting down the penalties and turning up the red zone offense. Thursday night, Pitt committed just three penalties. All four of its red zone opportunities resulted in touchdowns. Pitt's first penalty was a false start on the offensive line. It was a 4th-and-1 at the UConn 42. Sunseri tried to make an audible on the play, but it didn‘t get picked up by Alex Karabin. The Panthers were flagged for a false start, which forced them to punt. Despite it being the offensive line committing the penalty, Sunseri again took the fall.
"We knew it was going to be a dogfight the whole game," Sunseri said. "After the play, there's a couple talking between a couple of the players. We just talked a little bit too much. We didn't get back into the huddle, and get up to the line. We broke the huddle with not enough time. I didn't speak loud enough to the center. That's my responsibility to make sure (the center) gets that call, and I guess I didn't speak loud enough for him to hear it. That's my responsibility to make sure that he gets that call."
Later in the game, Ray Graham fumbled a kickoff return, after UConn had regained the lead in the fourth quarter. Graham is usually reliable with the ball as a running back, and made an error at a crucial time in the game."I wasn't running the ball tight," Graham said. "The call came out. I let the ball go. I thought I was in the open field. The person that got off their block made a play."
Additionally, punter Dan Hutchins shanked two punts. Hutchins leads the Big East in punting, and had a punt of 56 yards and another one of 50 yards in this game. In the third quarter, he shanked one which went 15 yards. The Huskies went three-and-out--leading 13-7 at the time. He shanked another one in the fourth quarter, this time a 29-yard punt. Though the punt was longer, UConn took over at their own 40. They answered with a 25-yard field goal, that gave UConn a 23-21 lead with 7:07 left in the game.
After that field goal, on the ensuing kickoff is where Graham's fumble occurred.
Graham and Sunseri had another miscue--a botched exchange on a flea flicker attempt. Luckily, it didn't result in a turnover. It did result in a four-yard loss, and two plays later, Sunseri threw his second interception of the game. Again, it was another uncharacteristic mistake that this team had not shown this year.
"Ultimately, that's my fault," Sunseri said.
"It's both of our fault," Graham interrupted.
"I was trying to look down the field, just try to look it off," Sunseri continued. "I was trying to look down the field, just trying to look it off, trying to give (the receivers) an extra step. I felt like we were throwing the ball efficiently early. Other than the interceptions, we were completing the ball downfield. We're going to go back and work through it this week."
Wannstedt was baffled not by the number of mistakes, but the fact they were coming from consistent players, who haven't shown such tendencies this year."Someone explain (the shanked punts) to me," Wannstedt said. "(Hutchins) has been so consistent. I forgot about (the shanked punts), to be quite honest with you. "I don't have an answer, except that our maturity to play a game on the road on national TV; we didn't get it done."
Pitt entered the contest leading the country in sacks, while UConn led the conference in fewest sacks allowed. Pitt got pressure on quarterback Zach Frazer, but only sacked him once. Though UConn held Pitt‘s defensive line in check--taking away the pass rush tendency, and opening more than enough running room for Todman, Pitt‘s mistakes ultimately did them in. It‘s still scary the fact that Pitt outgained the Huskies 363-349, turned the ball over three times to just one for UConn, gave up the individual performance by Todman--and still lost by only two points.
Pitt trailed 10-7 at halftime, after taking an early 7-0 lead on its first series. Jarred Holley intercepted a Zach Frazer pass on the first play of the game. The Panthers answered with a four-yard touchdown run by Dion Lewis.
Pitt came back to take a 21-13 lead in the third quarter thanks to both Lewis and Graham; Lewis scoring on a one-yard run, while Graham added a five-yarder. UConn--in control for much of the game--got the lead back at the end of the quarter on a 95-yard kickoff return from Nick Williams. The Huskies trailed 21-20
After the 25-yard field goal from Taggart--his third of the game--UConn extended its lead on the 14-yard touchdown pass from Zach Frazer to Isiah Moore after Graham‘s fumble. Pitt answered with a five-play, 75 yard drive that ended with a 20-yard touchdown pass from Tino Sunseri to Jon Baldwin, which made the score 30-28.
Pitt held UConn--or at least put them in a fourth down situation on that final series. The possibility of getting the ball back vanished as UConn head coach Randy Edsall decided to go for it on a 4th-and-1 on the UConn 19 late in the fourth quarter. Todman gained four yards, as the Huskies were able to run out the clock.
I knew exactly what down it was," Edsall said of his decision. "I looked in the eyes of the offensive linemen and in the eyes of (Jordan Todman) and I knew they would find a way to get a first down. After seeing what their offense was capable of, I thought it would be best to get a first down and try and run the clock out. We were able to do that. When you have confidence in your offensive line and running back it makes the decision easier.
Pitt is a team that prides itself on running the football. Todman's performance is what Pitt's running game is supposed to be; how it is marketed. Though Lewis and Graham made their share of plays, it paled in comparison to what just one back did on his own.
"We did a pretty good job, trying to do our job to help our team," Lewis said. "At the beginning of the game, I got in a rhythm early. At the same time, Ray did a pretty good job too. Whatever coaches want to do, I'm all for it."