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Pitt Vs. Notre Dame: Media Wrap-up

Ray Graham had a modest day against Notre Dame (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
Ray Graham had a modest day against Notre Dame (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
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I wrote immediately following Saturday's game that it was hard to feel too upset about this game. I always get less concerned about winning non-conference games, anyway, but this one had me particularly apathetic. Would have been nice to win, but I'm not sure I feel any different about Pitt as I did before. Solid team that has a chance to do some things, but will fall short of being great this year.

That doesn't mean Todd Graham's failed or that his system can't work. It simply means that Pitt has a lot of work to do and this is going to take some time - longer than most of us really cared to admit.

There are those, obviously, that are hoping for more. Joe Starkey of the Trib is one of them:

Last year, Todd Graham beat Notre Dame with Tulsa. This year, he couldn't beat Notre Dame with Pitt.

That's troubling.

I get Starkey's point, but he's probably a little off base with that statement. First, Notre Dame could be better this year and in 2010, they were only 7-5 in the regular season. Second, Tulsa (painful as this is to say) was probably a better team than Pitt last year. They won ten games and beat Notre Dame, while Pitt lost to the Irish last season.

But his point is taken. 12 points at home? That's pretty sad for an offense that aims to put up 35-40 points a game.

Todd Graham continued to place much of the blame at the feet of quarterback Tino Sunseri:

"We are getting sacked on quick-gain passes," Graham said. "We have to eliminate that."

I've got no problem with that. Sunseri was sacked twice on that last drive after Pitt got past midfield and there's no reason for that. But Graham also needs to be careful in that there have been times this season when Tino's been sacked with virtually no time to throw. One time on Saturday, three defenders were in the backfield almost immediately after Tino got the ball. He needs to get better at throwing the ball away, obviously, but the offensive line is almost non-existent at times.

``I just need to get rid of the ball,'' Sunseri said. ``I need to make sure I'm seeing everything and need to make sure that I'm putting the ball on people, and if they're not open I have to throw it away.''
Then there was the pass coverage. All in all, Pitt's defense did a pretty good job. Part of that was due to some shoddy play by Irish QB Tommy Rees, but keeping Notre Dame to 15 points is hard to complain about. A big part of that was locking down receiver Michael Floyd, but that also caused some other guys to make plays:

With the nation's second-leading receiver failing to make a catch after Notre Dame's opening drive, it was the 6-foot-6, 249-pound Eifert snaring clutch receptions in the middle of the field and exploiting the Panthers' underneath coverage on the Irish's game-winning, fourth-quarter drive.

He caught four passes on the possession, including a 3-yard touchdown in double coverage in the front of the end zone, and followed it up with a two-point conversion grab for the final points in his team's 15-12 victory Saturday at Heinz Field.

"They were rolling the coverage to Floyd, so that allowed a lot of other guys to step and make plays," said Eifert, who caught a career-high eight passes for 75 yards from quarterback Tommy Rees.

I found this quote about Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly regarding to that last scoring drive to be particularly interesting:

''I think what we did more than anything else is we went back to some of our basics. Probably 10 or 15 plays, they were some of our base plays,'' Kelly said.

That's the thing - Pitt's got no 'go to' plays, it appears. When Pitt needs to move the chains, there's no play that they can hang their hats on and know it will work more often than not. Even in 3rd and short situations, Ray Graham's not been guaranteed to pick up needed yardage on the ground. The players are still getting familiar with the offense and it shows.

Sure, the fourth quarter drive was disappointing, but this was nothing like the utter collapse we saw last week at Iowa. Pitt gave up a single touchdown in the fourth quarter and the problem is that they couldn't put any points on the board. Notre Dame came into Heinz field averaging about 290 yards in the air and Pitt held them to 216. Like I said, hard to complain too loudly. The fact that the Irish converted late in the game doesn't mean the unit played poorly as a whole.

The other breakdown on defense? That long run by Jonas Gray:
"They broke that long run and that kills us," Alecxih said. "Other than that, we played our butts off on defense. So, this one hurts as much as anything."
About that run, Gray was simply trying to keep his legs moving:
''I was just trying to run as fast as I can, keep my knees high and make sure they don't get any shoestring tackles,'' Gray said.
The Panthers also were caught off-guard by his speed:

"I didn't know that guy was that quick -- or strong," said Pitt safety Jason Hendricks, who had Gray in his grasp but could not bring him to the ground. "He's got a little shiftiness to him, too, but his speed was amazing."

Pitt had him in their grasp on two different occasions and couldn't close the deal. That was just a killer. Notre Dame was having just as much trouble moving the ball against Pitt and in a single play, the entire momentum of the game shifted. The Panthers couldn't come up with a play that big on offense and that was part of the difference in the game. To give it up to Gray, who as a senior backup running back had zero career touchdowns, was even more frustrating.

Getting back to the offense, Pitt managed to avoid having any turnovers ... but the penalties didn't help:

"What hurt us was the penalties; we have to cut out the penalties," redshirt junior quarterback Tino Sunseri said. "We were doing a lot of stuff to get us back, and we have to make sure that we're moving forward. It's hard to overcome those negative plays. We're third-and-15, we're second-and-18; those are hard downs to convert."

Unfortunately for Pitt, the biggest game of the season is coming up and there's not much time to catch their breath:

"The big thing is going to be the short week and forgetting about this. Conference play is the big thing. We’re going to focus on that and with the short week, we’re really going to have to get going."

Todd Graham added:

"We’ve lost two close games back-to-back. I’ve got all the confidence in the world. Our focus is to go to work and figure out a way to beat South Florida and be 1-0 in the Big East."

This game is obviously far more important than the Notre Dame game on Saturday. Lose and while Pitt may not be completely out of the Big East race, it will be extremely difficult to win the conference. A win would mean beating possibly the best team in the conference and make things significantly easier. It would also, as Starkey pointed out, change the current feelings about the team.

The bottom line is that Pitt's faced three decent opponents. To go 0-3 in those games won't exactly instill a lot of confidence among fans the rest of the way.