PITTSBURGH, PA - SEPTEMBER 15: Tino Sunseri #12 of the Pittsburgh Panthers and Logan Thomas #3 of the Virginia Tech Hokies talk after the game on September 15, 2012 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Panthers defeated the Hokies 35-17. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
Saying that it hasn't always been smooth-sailing for Tino Sunseri is pretty laughable. Even calling his career "up and down" is pretty far-fetched. Sunseri has quarterbacked Pitt football through it's most turbulent time ever and the results have honestly been as unstable as the head coaching job. Obviously, a huge part of that can be attributable to the ever-changing offensive systems, but Sunseri deserves some of that blame as well.
But Saturday, Tino Sunseri was incredible.
Pitt's third-year starter was nearly flawless in the Panthers' 35-17 upset of #13 Virginia Tech. He threw the deep ball. He found open receivers. He stayed upright and got rid of the ball when the Hokies brought the pressure.
He was everything you'd want in your quarterback. It hasn't always been easy for Sunseri, but Saturday he earned everything he got and then some.His play - 19 of 28 for 283 yards, 3 TDs and 1 INT - was good enough to be named the Big East's Offensive Player of the Week. And even more than the stats, it was the way Sunseri did it. He played with a decisiveness and an attitude that seemed to have been lacking in his career to this point.
And maybe even more than that, you have to admire his return for the final drive after suffering an apparent leg injury in the fourth quarter that landed him on crutches post-game.
Brian Batko sums up Sunseri's calm, cool and collected demeanor after the game:
And then, after the final second ticked off the clock and each side took to midfield to shake hands, the players danced and celebrated in front of the students who cheered them on all game.
But one player in particular remained stoic throughout all the hoopla.
Sunseri, standing in one of the end zones that he and his teammates found so often on Saturday, raised the game ball high above his head and pointed it slightly toward the stands in a show of appreciation.
"The student section was down there cheering the whole game. I felt like this was the loudest that I’ve seen Heinz Field," Sunseri said after completing 19-of-28 passes for 283 yards and three touchdowns. "The fans were into it, and I was just saying ‘thank you.’"
And it's not like he doesn't hear the criticism. Sunseri was downright surly with reporters after the game, many of whom understandably wondered if Saturday could be the begining of the Chad Voytik era. It's clear that Sunseri has heard his criticism loud and clear, some of it deserved, some of it ludicrous:
"Tino has a lot of confidence in himself," said Pitt special-teamer Joe Trebitz, Sunseri's roommate for four years and one of his closest friends. "Obviously, the coaches and his teammates have confidence in him."
Trebitz says he hears all the negative talk about Sunseri. "I can't believe a lot of it. I really can't." But Trebitz said Sunseri shrugs it all off if he hears it. "We don't talk about it at all. He keeps everything to himself. I think he uses it as motivation. All he cares about is getting better, whether it's watching extra tape or doing extra weight room or throwing extra routes with the receivers."
Moments later, Sunseri escaped the postgame interrogation and went to watch Tennessee play Florida on television. His father is Tennessee's defensive coordinator. He figured that was safe, that no one would suggest on the broadcast that he had his spot at Pitt because of his dad.
"I've heard people say that, too," Trebitz said. "I can't believe it. Don't they realize they're talking about a young adult who's just trying to have fun playing a game he's loved since he was 5 years old?"
Sunseri had plenty of fun Saturday on the Heinz Field lawn. Good for him.
As Ron Cook rightfully points out in the above column, the idea that Sunseri is somehow Pitt's quarterback through three head coaches only because of his dad - the same guy Pitt declined to consider for the head coaching job over and over and over - is absurd.
There will always be critics. I've been critical of Sunseri, others on this blog have been critical of Sunseri and Pitt fans in general have been critical of Sunseri. That's what happens when you play the most important position of the game, no matter the record - but especially at 14-15.
Either way, Tino Sunseri has been through a lot at Pitt. His contribution to Pitt football has been more than any of us could ever achieve. And throughout it all, by all accounts he's been a model student-athlete and teammate. I'm glad that he's earned a moment like this.