Arguably the biggest concern for Pitt heading into this week's matchup with Utah is the offensive line. Part of it is the absence of Lucas Nix—whose status probably won't be determined until Saturday. Then again, as head coach Todd Graham said this week, injuries are part of it.
The other part—the on-field part that was a major letdown in a 34-10 loss at Rutgers on Saturday—is the fact that Pitt gave up six sacks on Saturday. They've now given up 27 sacks in six games, for an average of 4.67 sacks per game or one sack for every 7.5 passing attempts this season. That's the most allowed out of all Division teams. If you're the quarterback, you'd have to think at some point it starts to shift your mental focus. Instead of thinking about where to throw, you start thinking about how to fall.
Much like injuries, and despite completing 14-of-27 passes with three interceptions, Sunseri says from a quarterback standpoint—expecting that type of pressure is part of it.
"It makes you more alert and aware of the pressure that they're bringing," Sunseri said. "You have to be able to go over to the sideline and talk to your guys, be able to make those adjustments with them and see what they're seeing, and maybe be able to work off them. I don't think it does anything in an aspect of, ‘can you hurry your reads and hurry your footwork comfortably.' You just have to understand that they're bringing guys, and you can't hold on to the football. You need to make sure it gets out of your hand."
What's even more mind-boggling is how a running back like Ray Graham is the nation's second-leading rusher behind the same offensive line that has allowed the most sacks in the country. While still pointing the finger at himself over the 24-point loss on Saturday, he is placing the offensive line woes on fundamentals.
"The mental part of it, the fundamental part of it, is our job as coaches to get them ready to play," Graham said. "It was unacceptable that we had that many mental mistakes. What a mental mistake is, if I tell you to step with your left foot on an inside zone, and you step with your right foot. It doesn't take anything to do that—just effort and focus."
Even though Utah has forced just nine sacks this season—a big jump from the four sacks a game that Rutgers has produced (second in the country)—Graham feels he is preparing his team for a similar type challenge, potentially an even bigger challenge with Utah. In last season's matchup, the Utes got just two sacks. With their philosophy, it's the mental aspect of how they bring their pressure that makes their pressure schemes noticeable. If it's the mental aspect that draws from fundamentals, then that's where Graham's concern lies for this week.
"They are a man-free attack style on defense," Graham added. "I think it will be presented differently. They're a little bit structurally different. These guys are physical. I believe personnel-wise, are better (than Rutgers) and I thought Rutgers executed really well in what they did, and I thought that was the difference in the game."
It's evident that a lot of that man-free attack benefits the front seven. Linebackers Chaz Walker and Brian Blechen are the top two tacklers. Linebacker Trevor Reilly leads the team with seven tackles for losses and three sacks.
There's certainly enough with Utah to cause for concern. Graham's big thing this week is focusing on the fundamentals. He's felt that way a couple other times this season, as Pitt has had to bounce back from losses to Iowa and Notre Dame. That's where the offensive line will put its focus this week to ensure another six-sack performance isn't allowed. Much like the status of senior guard Lucas Nix, we'll just have to wait and see how well-prepared the line will be in terms of fundamentals.
"It was the worst we've played fundamentally; definitely this year, maybe ever," Graham added. " The mental part of it, the fundamental part of it, is our job as coaches to get them ready to play. We just didn't respond very well to being on a big emotional high. I thought it was what the doctor ordered. Obviously, I did not expect us to play fundamentally that bad. We played up front and with the ball, it was our worst game fundamentally."