Laken Litman: What's the feeling been around the program since Todd Graham bolted for Arizona State? Do you feel it'll be hard for the players to get up for this game attitude-wise? Are emotions still running high?
Tony Greco: Emotions are still running high. For one thing, university administrators have let the players say whatever they want about Graham. Despicable, pathetic, and shenanigans are just a few words that have been mentioned this week in regards to their former head coach. It's amazing, yet deserved, that the players--the alleged pupils--are the ones calling out the adults, as they should. At the same time, Graham also left these five assistants behind. They've set a great tone--knowing they are out of a job the second the clock hits zeroes, so there's been a lot of cameraderie between the leftover coaches and players, and everyone seems to be responding.
LL: Pitt is playing in the Compass Bowl for it's second year in a row. What was the reaction among the team when they found out Birmingham was their post-season destination again?
TG: Less than enthused. Part of that stems from Todd Graham placing a goal of winning the Big East. Obviously, the Graham couldn't deliver on his promise. Pitt did play with a lot of emotion in the final regular season game just to get into a bowl, which made a lot of fans thankful just to get to a bowl.
LL: How important is this game for quarterback Tino Sunseri in securing is starting spot for next season? How does SMU's defense fare compared to those he's seen so far this year?
TG: It's important in a sense just to go out on a high note. For as tough as a year as he's had, he needs 19 completions to set a new record for completions in a season for Pitt. If he wins this game, he'd be the first quarterback since Dan Marino to win at least two bowl games at Pitt. One of the many good things about Graham not coming back, is that it will help Sunseri right away. Sunseri lost a lot of confidence under Graham, so the fact that he is not coaching in this game gives him some new optimism right away. SMU's defense will be similar to West Virginia's defense, which will create a big challenge. The Mountaineers racked up nine sacks in that game.
LL: Is the interim coaching staff going to change much scheme-wise sans Graham? What kind of system does Pitt run offensively and defensively?
TG: It will be a lot different, mainly from an offensive standpoint. Todd Dodge (quarterbacks coach) will now call the plays. His philosophy incorporates a more vertical passing game. They'll be looking to take a lot of shots downfield. That much will be different. Also expect to see a lot more receivers involved in the scheme of things. Defensively, Keith Patterson--the interim head coach--was also the team's defensive coordinator this year. Expect much of the same from him. Patterson likes to mix things up, and rolls out a different defensive lineup based on the opponent.
LL: It looks like both SMU and Pitt suffered huge losses to their running games this year when Zach Line and Ray Graham were sidelined due to season-ending injuries, respectively. Panthers backup Zach Brown missed Pitt's final regular season game with an injury. Is he fully recovered? Do you expect to see some weakness in Pitt's rushing attack since he's missed some time?
TG: Based on the quarterbacks coach calling the plays, and based on Pitt being without their top two backs (Graham, Brown), look for more of an emphasis on the passing game. Brown practiced Tuesday, but has not the last two days. That leaves true freshmen Isaac Bennett and Corey Davis as the guys who will get the bulk of the carries. Bennett has been a pleasant surprise. He won't be the workhorse that Graham was, and he's not the go-to guy, but he can make plays.
LL: Keeping with the running game topic, how does Pitt's run defense, which ranks fifth in the Big East, allowing more the 121 yards per game, plan to stop SMU true freshman Rishaad Wimbley? He's no Zach Line, but he has made a dent in the running game as of late.
TG: SMU's running game will be an area of concern for Pitt. Again, they're approaching this game knowing that SMU loves to air it out, but they also have to be aware of the running game.
LL: Has Pitt seen an offense like the Run and Shoot this season? Which Big East offense could you best compare it to?
TG: It's not a run-and-shoot, but West Virginia's spread offense is very similar in approach. A number of players and coaches have commented that the Mustangs can be just as explosive as West Virginia. They limited the Mountaineers to 21 points in their loss, which left a lot feeling good after watching what West Virginia did to Clemson in the Orange Bowl.
LL: What concerns this Pitt team most about facing SMU?
TG: The running game, and the SMU defense. They feel SMU's defense brings a lot of speed and power to the table. One coach compared their defense to West Virginia's.
LL: SMU's secondary isn't very big, but they've been fairly effective this season. How do you think Pitt's receivers stack up in that matchup?
TG: Could be the matchup that ultimately decides the game. Pitt is going to look for the one-on-one matchups. It seems SMU leaves their corners in one-on-one situations--baiting their opponents a little. The SMU coaches must have a lot of confidence in those corners. If the receivers are able to make plays and catch the ball on those plays, then Pitt will come out on top. If SMU is able to defense, they'll be in control.
LL: Score prediction?
TG: 69-67. I can see it going either way, but I expect a shootout.