Things have not gone as planned for new Pittsburgh coach Todd Graham as his Panthers enter a Wednesday meeting on Oct. 26 with Connecticut, but he believes his team is capable of turning things around and still winning the Big East championship.
"We're capable of that, I truly believe that," Graham said to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "We are capable of playing a lot better than we have, and I expect us to."
Graham does not back away from what has happened to date and takes responsibility for it, saying coaches' main responsibility is to teach and that they haven't accomplished that.
Graham said he cautioned his coaches at the outset not to "try and go from A to Z" too quickly while installing the system but likely tried too hard to "get from A to M, instead of maybe, A to G."
"We're obviously not where we want to be, but I think we are close. We could have very easily won at least three more games," Graham said. "And we've done some positive things on defense and special teams, and, offensively, we come out and shown what we are capable of against South Florida and then we fall back the last two games.
"So we've been very inconsistent and we just need to improve fundamentally and keep working every day. I know fans are upset, and they should be -- I'm upset, I go home my wife is upset, my mom is upset and my bro>ther is giving me input on who the quarterback should be. But they should be upset because the standard and expectations of Pitt football is to win championships, and we haven't played at that level.
"My feeling is that these last five games, we have to show people our resolve, show people what we are capable of and get better fundamentally, get more consistent and just play good football down the stretch."
It begins with UConn, which will challenge Pitt physically in a game that will feature a lot of defense.
--While Pitt has battled to be a premier FBS program, it has lost at least three games in every season since 1981.
--RB Ray Graham's 939 rushing yards are the second most by a Pitt player after seven games in school history. Graham's total trails only the legendary Tony Dorsett, who had 1,072 yards through the first seven games of his 1976 Heisman Trophy season.
SERIES HISTORY: Connecticut leads Pittsburgh, 4-3 (last meeting in 2010, 30-28, UConn).
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: QB Tino Sunseri has been anointed the quarterback role by coach Todd Graham, who had been doing sharing some time with Trey Anderson in an effort to get some consistency. But for Sunseri to be successful the rest of the offense around him has to step up, meaning the offensive line and the receivers. RB Ray Graham remains the best option as he approaches 1,000 rushing yards and his continued success there should open up some things for Sunseri.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: The Pitt defense has not been as dominating as in the past but it has been the pass rush has begun to click. That's important because Coach Todd Graham likes to play an attacking defense that will "impact" the quarterback, meaning make him rush and make hasty decisions with the ball. Through seven games, this defense is ranked in the nation's top 15 in tackles for loss per game (8.0) and sacks per game (3.00). Over the past three contests, opposing quarterbacks have only completed 51 percent of their passes and averaged just 174 yards per game through the air. They turned out their most potent performance against Utah, tallying an astounding 17 tackles for loss and seven sacks in that game alone.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'm painting the picture of (positive) glimpses in the Maine game, glimpses in the New Hampshire game, about 75 percent of the Iowa game and about 90 percent of the South Florida game. That's the picture I've gotten for Tino Sunseri and the picture I'd like to paint for all of the people who follow Pitt football. We are going with Tino Sunseri. We have the most invested in Tino throughout spring ball and camp and everything." -- QB coach Todd Graham to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Connecticut at Pittsburgh, Oct. 26 -- Rare Wednesday game at Heinz Field. Pitt comes in having lost two straight while UConn is coming in off a stunning 16-10 victory over South Florida. Both teams are 1-1 in a league where only one unbeaten remains, making this a critical showdown. The Panthers look to avenge last year's 30-28 defeat at the hands of Connecticut, a loss that ultimately cost Pitt a BCS berth and outright Big East title. Pitt's Ray Graham is the country's third-leading rusher, and tops in the Big East, with an average of 134.14 yards per game. Graham leads the nation in total rush yards with 939.
KEYS TO THE GAME: UConn has struggled scoring points, which should play into Pitt's strength, which is its defense. The Panthers pass rush should give UConn QB Johnny McEntee, who has completed only 52 percent of his passes, big problems. McEntee ranks last in passing efficiency in the Big East. Like Pitt, UConn lives off its defense. They rank second in the conference against the rush, which could mean it will be a long day for Panther RB Ray Graham if his QB Tino Sunseri can't get a hot hand. UConn also is excellent in situations, giving up just 32 percent of third downs attempted against it, tops in the league. If Pitt can establish something on the ground and play ball control against a team that likes to do the same thing, it will win the game.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
QB Tino Sunseri -- Coach Todd Graham has committed to Sunseri because there has been some confusion created by him shuffling quarterbacks. Sunseri needs to play better. He completed only 4 of 11 passes for 38 yards and no touchdowns against Utah and was benched in favor of Anderson, who did worse with 5 of 19 for 12 yards and two interceptions, one returned for a touchdown. Over the past two games Sunseri is 18 of 30 for 160 yards with no scores and three interceptions. The Pitt offense has scored only 10 points during that time, seven of them courtesy of a long Ray Graham run.
RB Ray Graham -- With the offensive air game struggling, a great burden has been placed upon Graham and, until Utah, he had delivered, leading the nation in rushing and off to the fastest start in Pitt history. But Utah sold out to stop him, shadowed him everywhere, and he was given only 12 carries. He still, however, leads the nation in total rushing yards with 939 and will probably surpass 1,000 in this week's game against UConn.
DT Aaron Donald had a breakout performance against Utah, chalking up three sacks. Donald ranks as one of the leaders in the Big East and in the top 25 in the NCAA in sacks, totaling five on the year. He has freed things up for other player like DT Chas Alecxih added a sack and two tackles for loss as well against Utah. Not to be outdone, Pitt's blitz unit (linebackers and defensive backs) accounted for 10 of the Panthers' 17 tackles for loss with OLB Greg Williams tackled the Utes in the backfield a career-high four times.
--Backup QB Trey Anderson has been bothered by tendinitis in his wrist, which has allowed Mark Myers, the No. 3 QB, to get increased repetitions in practice during the off-week. QB Coach Todd Dodge told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that Myers "continues to be a viable option on our football team."
--DT Chas Alecxih apologized for post-game remarks in which he labeled Utah offensive lineman John Cullen and his teammates "dirty" players. "I want to apologize for some of my comments after the game," Alecxih said. "I was pretty fired up and I'm a pretty emotional guy at times and I have a tendency to say what's on my mind without thinking of the consequences."