A couple of days after the game against Maine, I'm not feeling much better about it.
That said - I am feeling a bit better ... here's why. Neither the offense or defense played all that well, but the fact is that after taking a step back, I'm encouraged by the fact that Pitt essentially had the game put away late. A final score may never have been so deceiving. The bottom line is that Pitt was more dominant than that score indicated.
Pitt wasn't great, mind you. The offensive line was in shambles, Tino Sunseri struggled, and the defense gave up a lot of short completions. Again. And the fact that they only managed 35 points with the field position they had was inexcusable. But the thing to remember is that Pitt was up by 20 points with nine minutes left. I'm not excusing the defense for giving up the two late scores, but in all of it, we've got to remember these guys are only human. Seeing a 20-point lead on the scoreboard late in the game has caused teams to step off the gas before and it could have been the case here, too. That doesn't make it right - only possible.
That's probably not a popular opinion, but after more than three quarters, Pitt was up by three touchdowns. So if there's anything positive to take away from this game, it's that.
So what did the players/coaches think?One of the things I'm coming to like about Todd Graham is that he's brutally honest at times. That may not always be the case, but there are times when he just tells it like it is. His reason for the close game? Playing down to the competition:
"About the most positive thing I can say is we're 2-0," head coach Todd Graham said after the game. "That was definitely played down to the level of competition."
Mike Shanahan didn't necessarily see it that way, though:
"I didn't get the sense that we played down to their competition, because you can't take anybody lightly," redshirt junior receiver Mike Shanahan said. "We just have to keep working on details and big things are going to come.
"I don't think anybody was like, 'Oh Maine, we can take it easy.' But if Coach Graham feels like that, maybe that's what it is."
Just in case you thought that maybe Graham's words slipped out, he later also added:
"Their guys played hard, their guys are well-coached and it’s one of those games we played down to the level of competition," he said. "I’m responsible for that."
Maine's head coach Jack Cosgrove sort of alluded to the same thing:
"They are bigger, faster and stronger than we are and that is the bottom line," Cosgrove said. "We closed the gap and like a good football team they responded. I don’t think it was on our end. I think Pitt said, ‘Holy cow, we got a ball game here.’"
I'm not making excuses for Pitt, but I do think it's possible they took it easy - especially after they got up by 20 in the fourth quarter. I can't stress this enough - there's no excuse for it ... just saying it's possible. If that indeed was the case, then it does reflect on Graham like he said.
Looking at the defense, Pitt played fine against the rush, giving up less than 40 yards. The big thing for me on defense was Pitt's inability to stop the short passes. There's no doubt that Main had its passing game firing on all cylinders - their quarterback even won a CAA Player of the Week award in defeat. Afterwards, Graham was fed up with it:
"Defensively, we’re giving up stupid plays in the passing game. It’s ridiculous and it should not be happening," coach Graham said.
Another thing defensively that drove me nuts was the missed tackles. It seemed like there were a ton - especially on the quarterback. Max Gruder made no excuses:
"I am not going to sit here and make excuses about a new system," he said. "It's new assignments. It's new alignments, but you still have to tackle. Football is football.
"It is not acceptable. We can't let that happen again."
Then there's the quarterback controversy/non-controversy. This could take a while.
I already went over my thoughts here about why there is indeed a controversy, but here's what Tino said:
"They said they wanted to get Trey in the game so that he has some experience," Sunseri said after the game. "He felt like we had enough lead to be able to get him into the game and make sure that he could be in that situation in case anything happened to [me]."
Now does Tino believe that? Who knows. But I personally have a hard time believing that someone like Graham, who preaches that Pitt needs to keep the 'pedal to the metal' thought a 13-point lead was enough to risk playing a backup. The fact that Trey came in after an interception makes it look that much worse. And the fact is that if Graham really did think a 13-point lead was enough to win in that situation (which I don't), then it's no wonder his own players let up.
Here's what I think happened: There was a very real plan to play Anderson at some point, but it wasn't known when. After Tino's second interception, he decided it was time to get Anderson a look. It was really then or never. With a 13-point lead, he could still afford to pull Anderson in favor of Tino if there was a big meltdown ... which there wasn't.
Tino's play in the first quarter was probably a big part of why he will start again next week. He really got off to a good start, despite being hurried and sacked early on. Sunseri was 8-12 and helped Pitt to a touchdown and field goal in that first quarter, which was why I found Paul Zeise's mention of him getting off to a slow start a bit puzzling. Slow start? Were we watching the same game? Tino actually played his best football in that opening quarter.
Lastly, there's the offensive line.
For starters, even Maine's players knew coming in that Pitt's line needed work:
"We studied a lot of film and saw their (Pitt's) feet weren't the greatest," said sophomore defensive end Michael Cole, who had 2.5 sacks. "We were told to fly off the ball."
"He's holding the ball like he did in last year's system," Graham said. "Our system is not one that holds the football. It's 1-2-3, ball's out. We're trying to get that across."
Look, there were definitely moments when Tino held the ball a bit too long, but there were also times when he simply had no time. Some of the sacks weren't the fault of the line and Graham is correct in pointing out that Tino should share in the blame a bit.
Getting to the quarterback was something Maine thought they could do:
"We went after them," said Black Bears Coach Jack Cosgrove. "We felt like we could force the issue a little bit, and we were able to do that."
Maine's defense recorded seven sacks and picked off Sunseri twice. Defensive end Michael Cole finished with 2.5 sacks and also had eight tackles, including three for a loss. Linebacker Arron Achey added two sacks.
"If everyone is doing what they're supposed to be doing, someone is bound to come free," Cole said. "We were lucky enough to clean them up today."
Lots to work on this week.