Panthers Overcome Injuries To Earn Bowl Bid

The last time Pitt and SMU met, both programs were at the height of respectability. Both are battling to get back to that same level they were nearly 30 years ago.

Pittsburgh has a chance to erase a lot of bad memories when it meets SMU of Conference USA in the BBVA Compass Bowl at historic Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala., on Jan. 7.

It is a return engagement at the BBVA Compass Bowl for Pitt, who last year lost there to Kentucky, 27-10.

Pitt and SMU have played six times, and this is the second bowl meeting between the teams, the Mustangs having defeated Pitt in the 1983 Cotton Bowl, 7-3. That was Pitt's last trip to a major bowl game.

The Panthers, in their first year under coach Todd Graham, finished 6-6 in a season that featured a number of difficult losses in a difficult situation, fighting a string of crippling injuries and trying to introduce a radically different system from the one employed by previous coach Dave Wannstedt.

Early in the season, the Panthers lost non-conference games to Iowa by four points and to Notre Dame by three, then lost an in-conference, three-point heartbreaker to Cincinnati before falling by one point to West Virginia in the Backyard Brawl.

Considering that Graham lost his top running back, Ray Graham, who was second in the nation in rushing and the focal point of offense, and that he lost three key offensive linemen during the season, reaching a bowl became something of an accomplishment.

"When I first got here, I remember talking to (senior captain) Myles Caragein about what we planned on accomplishing. I have met some of the finest young men that I have been around since I began coaching. I have been very blessed to share relationships with (the seniors)," he said on Senior Day after the Panthers became bowl-eligible by beating Syracuse.

"I told them the other day that sometimes things don't happen as fast we want them to, but with this group, we are going to do tremendous things in the future. I wanted the seniors to know that they are a very key part of it and that they laid the foundation for the things that are going to happen. I really believe that, and I am indebted to our seniors. We are going to bust our tail, and we are going to the send our seniors out the right way with a win."

It certainly took time not only for the team to pick up on the new system that Graham installed but to even accept it. Early on, there was resistance to his scheme.

"You can't just rebel with what's going on," senior right guard Lucas Nix said. "As time went on, everyone consistently started getting the hang of it, and the bad talk in the locker room left the locker room.

"As we go into the next game and (Graham) continues his career here, you are going to see just what he put in place is going to start working a lot better. It worked for him before. There is no reason it can't work here."

Now, Graham gets an extra game to play and 15 extra days to work on refining it, as if it were another spring practice. That may be as important as the game itself.


--On the spot and now playing to try to hold his job for next year, QB Tino Sunseri needs a big bowl game. He has been pressured for much of the season and has far too often settled for a sack. Coach Todd Graham has pushed and pushed his system on Sunseri, but the junior hasn't really been able to run it, and Graham even slowed the tempo to help him. Sunseri is a brave warrior, however, and showed he can do the job with a 419-yard passing game against UConn.

--Senior LB Max Gruder has been the heart and soul of the defense, making tackles all over the field. Gruder led the team with 107 tackles, which ranked second in the Big East. His best day was against Iowa, when he made 14 tackles. He had 11 tackles against both Utah and Cincinnati.

--Sophomore WR Devin Street really came on as the season progressed. Street finished with three 100-yard receiving games, including an eight-catch game against Cincinnati. His coming-out party, though, was at Iowa, where he caught seven passes, averaging 19.7 per catch while reeling in a 66-yard touchdown.

--RB Zach Brown, a transfer from Wisconsin, will be playing his final collegiate game. He did a decent job filling in for Ray Graham after Pitt's star running back went down with a knee injury. Brown gets some tough inside yards but doesn't have the breakaways skills that Graham had. Brown is also a sure-handed receiver. He missed the Syracuse game with an injured sternum but is expected back for the bowl.

BOWL HISTORY: Pitt has gone to bowls each of the past three years and won the last two of them, beating North Carolina 19-17 in the 2009 Meinecke Car Care Bowl and topping Kentucky 27-10 in last year's BBVA Compass Bowl. It has been a long time, however, since Pitt went to one of the major bowl games -- 1982, when the Panthers lost to SMU, 7-3, in the Cotton Bowl. Perhaps Pitt's greatest bowl moment came on Jan. 1, 1977, when the Panthers beat Georgia 27-3 to earn their first national championship in 39 years. While QB Matt Cavanaugh was named the game's MVP, Heisman winner Tony Dorsett rushed for a Sugar Bowl-record 202 yards in the game.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "This bowl game is going to help us tremendously. We'll get a chance to go to a nice place, get our seventh win and go win a championship. We're not going just to go to a bowl game. I can tell you we are going to go to win." -- Pitt coach Todd Graham.


Scouting the running game: Pitt's running game figured to be the best in the Big East this year but was sidetracked midway through the year when RB Ray Graham, on the verge of 1,000 yards and second in the nation in rushing, saw his season end with a torn ACL. The Panthers moved Zach Brown into the lead-back spot, and he was adequate but not the threat Graham was. Brown finished with 336 yards but missed the Syracuse game due to an injury. Freshman TB Isaac Bennett got his first start in that game and followed a pair of 69-yard games with a 51-yard effort. The Panthers also ran a lot of Wildcat formation in the final game with Anthony Gonzalez being effective, running six times for 36 yards. One problem all year has been an offensive line in flux due to injury.

Scouting the passing game: QB Tino Sunseri was a lightning rod for criticism all season. Early on, he had trouble fitting into coach Todd Graham's high-octane offense, but he showed his potential when he passed for 419 yards against Connecticut. Sunseri finished the year with 2,433 yards and 10 touchdowns, but he spent much of his time running for his life. Pitt gave up a staggering 56 sacks, 15 more than any other Big East team. West Virginia sacked Sunseri 10 times, including the final four offensive plays. After Ray Graham went down, Sunseri was incorporated heavily into the running game, too. Sophomore WR Devin Street became Sunseri's favorite target and had three 100-yard receiving games.

Scouting the run defense: Pitt was aggressive both in attacking the pass and the run. The Panthers finished ninth in the nation in tackles for loss. However, they weren't overly effective in stopping the run, finishing fifth in the Big East, as they allowed more than 121 yards per game. Middle linebacker Max Gruder was a force throughout the year, leading the Panthers in tackling and finishing second in the Big East, averaging 8.9 per game.

Scouting the pass defense: The Panthers were aggressive in attacking with their three-man front and rang up a lot of sacks, finishing tied for second in the Big East with 39. That tied South Florida for fourth in the country. DT Aaron Donald and DE Brandon Lindsey finished among the conference leaders in sacks. Despite the pressure, Pitt didn't force a lot of mistakes, picking off just eight interceptions all season.

Scouting the special teams: Junior PK Kevin Harper is a weapon. He tied the Heinz Field record for longest field goal, college or pro, when he hit a 52-yarder against Cincinnati, and he closed the season by making four of five field goals against Syracuse. He hit 19 field goals for the season. Matt Yoklic averaged 41 yards a punt to rank in the middle of Big East punters. The Panthers' return game was nothing special, though punt returner Ronald Jones was second in the league, but with just a 6.6-yard average. Andrew Taglianetti is the special teams captain, and he has been something of a punt block specialist throughout his career, getting six of them.

Intangibles: It took quite a while for Todd Graham to get his system installed and even longer to get the players to accept it, but they seem to have come around. Pitt won three of the final five games with a very difficult one-point loss to West Virginia in the Backyard Brawl keeping it from being a successful season. Graham is eager to work through the bowl preparation and try to get a win to take into the offseason. Graham has had to restructure his coaching staff, as offensive coordinator Calvin Magee, secondary coach Tony Gibson and tight end coach and recruiting coordinator Tony Dews left Pittsburgh and are planning to join Rich Rodriguez, with whom they worked at West Virginia and Michigan, in his new role as head coach at Arizona.

--WR Devin Street caught five passes for 70 yards in the victory over Syracuse after not practicing all week because of a mild concussion.

--RB Ray Graham was ranked second in the nation in rushing and nearing 1,000 yards when he suffered a torn ACL that put him out for the season and forced coach Todd Graham to make a number of offensive changes, putting more pressure on junior QB Tino Sunseri to make plays with his arm and feet.

--RB Zach Brown missed the regular season's final game with an injured sternum but is expected to be ready to play in the bowl game. Brown rushed for 336 yards and five TDs, averaging 4.1 yards a rush. He also caught 25 passes for 184 yards.

--G Chris Jacobson was lost for the season due to knee surgery.

--G Matt Rotheram was lost for the year with a fractured left ankle.

--G Lucas Nix missed five games with a knee injury, returning for the West Virginia game and the regular-season finale against Syracuse.

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