There's certainly no shortage of storylines heading into this week's game with Cincinnati for the Pittsburgh Panthers. The Panthers are coming off one of their best wins of the year, in a 35-20 win over UConn last Wednesday night. They hope to first of all come out of the gate stronger than they did the last time. After a 44-17 win over South Florida on a Thursday night game in September, they responded with a 34-10 drubbing at Rutgers.
"We don't want to do that again, that would be the lesson," Pitt head coach Todd Graham said at his Monday press conference. "You look at college football; Texas Tech wins at Oklahoma then gets boat-raced at home (against Iowa State). You're playing Cincinnati at home, you win all four games, you control your destiny."
Most importantly, Pitt got its passing game in gear with its best performance of the season. Tino Sunseri completed 29-of-42 passes for 419 yards, and earned Big East Offensive Player of the Week honors. Ray Graham had been the focus of Pitt's offense all year, but Pitt had yet to establish anything in their passing game this year. What's interesting is that in the absence of Graham—who went down on his second carry, and is now lost for the year due to a right injury—is that the passing game stepped up in his absence.
"We were very efficient in getting the ball out," Graham added. "We managed the game, and that's what we have to do. I thought there were some adjustments we made. We executed better. We were on task with what we were doing."
Though Graham was pleased for obvious reasons, he still feels the offense is capable of much more.
"We played average," Graham added. "We can play a lot better than that. Obviously, I was pleased with the performance, but it's not a great performance. The thing that was great, was not turning the football over, 100 percent ball security and no negative yardage plays."
While the offense is coming off an impressive performance, they still face the rest of the season without the services of Ray Graham, who was leading the Big East in rushing. Zach Brown was a big part of Wednesday's performance, but it came in the passing game. Brown led the team with nine receptions for 84 yards, but he will now be counted on to carry the workload running the ball. Corey Davis also had two carries on Wednesday night. He, along with the other freshmen Malcolm Crockett and Isaac Bennett will compete for Brown's former role behind Graham. While Davis has seen significant playing time this year, a big portion on special teams, Todd Graham expects to have to burn the redshirt of either Crockett or Bennett.
"We'll have to (play them)," Graham said. "Corey has been playing some special teams. Malcolm or Isaac, we'll have to burn one of their redshirts. I'm very confident in both of those kids."
While the offense has lost Graham, Matt Rotheram (ankle) and Cameron Saddler (sternum) for the season, Lucas Nix is expected back in the starting lineup this week. Todd Graham was impressed with the play of the offensive line against UConn. Greg Gaskins will remain at left tackle, Ryan Schlieper at left guard, Ryan Turnley at center, Nix at right guard and Jordan Gibbs at right tackle. Cory King, who filled in for Rotheram after he went down, is slated to backup Nix at right guard.
"I really think that we've got an opportunity to get (Nix) back," Graham said. "That's the first time he's told me that. He'll help us tremendously. I thought our offensive line played their best game. Greg Gaskins, Schlieper, King, Jordan Gibbs played his best game. Turnley, his toughness, and what he's playing through, I haven't witnessed that before, what he's able to fight through. He's doing a great job. That snap has been very impressive. Getting Nix back will help us tremendously."
With the loss of Saddler, Ronald Jones is expected to start in his place at the two-back. Jones will be backed up by freshman Darius Patton. Devin Street is now backed up by Drew Carswell. Carswell has been playing both the nine-back and three-back in certain situations. Carswell had three catches for 45 yards on Wednesday night. Brendan Carozzoni also had his biggest performance, with three catches for 36 yards. Losing Saddler is tough, but with help from these hybrid players at other positions, Graham hopes these type of role players can help offset the loss of Saddler. He also expects to see Anthony Gonzalez a little more.
"This was really a game where we did a good job with taking what (UConn's defense) gave us," Graham added. "They made some adjustments in the second half, I was really pleased with Brendan Carrozoni, and pleased with Hubie (Graham).
"I like doing that. I like getting more guys in there. Obviously Hubie is a great player. I like how Mike Shanahan, how Devin played. We got a lot more people in there. It really has to do with Brendan's maturation. Anthony wasn't healthy last week. Hopefully we'll have him full speed this week. We're excited about his role."
One other loss that Graham has had to deal with is the dismissal of Kevin Adams from the team. Though Adams had filled in for Todd Thomas when he was injured, Graham doesn't plan to move anyone else in the rotation. Carl Fleming is now the primary backup to Thomas at the Spur linebacker position. Graham expects Thomas to take all the snaps.
"I think (Thomas) was a little tentative, coming back from an injury," Graham said. "He'll have to take the brunt of it, and he will. He'll have to take all the snaps at that Spur position."
He didn't comment specifically on Adams' dismissal, but admitted it was something he hated to do.
"The number one thing is we care about young people," Graham said. "Any circumstance, it breaks your heart. Obviously, we have to do the things and be who we say we are."