It may technically be a bye week for the Pitt football team, but according to head coach Todd Graham, it's business as usual for the Pitt Panthers. Coming off a 21-14 win at Louisville Saturday, Graham says he's uncomfortable with the label of this being a bye week.
"We don't ever use the word ‘bye,'' Graham said. "We have extra days to practice. We watched film yesterday; Tuesday and Wednesday we'll practice. We'll give the guys off Saturday. We'll get more practice time, and more preparation time."
Of some of the things he noticed in watching film, was the play of his offensive line—something Graham raved about on Monday, during the Big East Teleconference. Pitt has had to use its seventh combination of offensive linemen in its 10th game of the season. Last week's lineup of Greg Gaskins, Juantez Hollins, Ryan Turnley, Ryan Schlieper and Jordan Gibbs changed slightly, with Cory King replacing Juantez Hollins at left guard.
This week's group opened the way for 200 yards rushing on 45 attempts, while it only allowed three sacks in 23 total passing attempts. Despite the switching around, the injuires to seniors Chris Jacobson and Lucas Nix—Graham has been pleased with how the line has responded, especially Saturday.
"I'm just really proud of them," Graham said. "Greg Gaskins is a guy who sticks out. We've now had a few weeks with the same group of guys. We run-blocked well, came off the ball well. It's just repetition; having the same guys in the lineup helped as well, having those guys being disciplined."
Graham also praised the running backs, or running game overall. Tino Sunseri, Zach Brown and Isaac Bennett combined for 200 yards on the ground. Despite the loss of starter Ray Graham—who was the third-leading rusher in the country when he was lost for the season following the UConn game on October 26—the ground game has produced in the two games in Ray Graham's absence.
"There's no replacing Ray, he did it all," Graham said. "Zach is a tremendous receiver. Zach is a powerful runner, and can bang it up inside. Isaac Bennett is the freshman runner. What Zach brings is he's more of a power back."
Brown has also been a pretty good blocker, and has shown that in his two starts in place of Ray Graham.
"He's a tremendous pass-protector; one of the things that's his strengths," Graham added. "A lot of people thought we'd lose a lot, but Zach's really gotten better with perimeter running."
While Graham has seen players step up at running back and on the offensive line due to injuries—not to mention Ronald Jones in place of Cameron Saddler—Graham has also seen increased roles of certain freshmen, particularly on defense. Khaynin Mosley-Smith has seen increased reps, and even came up with a third-down stop on Saturday. LaQuentin Smith saw more action last week against Cincinnati, picking up his first career sack. Ejuan Price came up with a big sack on Saturday. Sophomore Aaron Donald had two sacks on Saturday, and now leads the team with nine sacks on the season.
It led Graham to talking about some of his younger players, how some of seen their roles increased or progressed as the season has gone on. It's not just sign for the future, but is more indicative of what the young players are able to do to help right away.
"It's exciting," Graham said. "The power that Aaron Donald has, the potential is off the chart. He is very dominant. Every play, he gets better and better. Ejuan Price is one of the most gifted players we have on defense. His athleticism is tremendous. LaQuentin Smith, he's a guy I have no problem playing every snap. KK (Mosley-Smith) is getting better. He's very athletic for a big guy. It bodes well for that group. The athleticism is very exciting for the future."