The new-look Pitt football team made its debut under head coach Todd Graham at Heinz Field… The new-look Pitt football team made its debut under head coach Todd Graham at Heinz Field Saturday afternoon.
The team concluded its spring practice season with its annual Blue-Gold event, a scrimmage that divides Pitt’s players into groups and has them play each other.
In some ways, the game, which includes players from last season’s team but no incoming recruits, serves as a predictor of the upcoming season. The 2011 season will be definitive for Graham, who came to Pitt after a series of coaching switches caused the school to lose some of its top recruits.
Saturday’s game provided fans with their first glimpse of Graham’s spread offense, which runs at a fast pace and doesn’t use a huddle.
The match-up didn’t follow the normal game format. Referees didn’t keep time during the match-up, but a Blue team consisting of mostly starters played a Gold team for about 100 total plays. The Blue team won 48-13.
For Graham, the game signaled a successful end to the spring practice season.
“The score was pretty predictable,” Graham said. “I am very pleased with where we are as a team.”
Rainy weather kept crowds away, but the Panthers ran their new, “high-octane” offense just as they would have if it had been sunny and dry.
The exciting high-octane system was in full effect Saturday as Sunseri launched 40-plus yard passes to his receivers and receiver Cam Saddler also scored on a 5-yard reverse.
“Our ultimate goal is to take care of the ball and execute on offense. I was impressed with how the guys played today,” Graham said. “I thought everyone did a great job. It was the first time that we have gotten to that play count, as we ran over 100 plays on offense.”
The game got off to a quick start as senior Buddy Jackson returned the opening kickoff 87 yards for an early 7-0 lead for the Blue.
A quick three-and-out series for the Blue defense got that team the ball back for a methodical drive led by quarterback Tino Sunseri.
Sunseri completed all six passes he attempted on the first drive for 69 yards capped with a 14-yard touchdown pass to Devin Street. The touchdown gave the Blue a 14-0 lead.
Despite being seen as the front-runner for the quarterback position, Sunseri is working hard to become what Graham calls “a disciple of the coaches on the field.”
“Whenever I hear him say that, I take that as I need to be basically a coach on the field,” Sunseri said. “I need to understand the situation, what can hurt us, what can help us. I need to understand the total outlook of the game —where he’s thinking the ball needs to go, I need to make sure the ball actually goes. I want to make sure I know exactly where he thinks the ball should go because he’s usually right.”
Sunseri finished the day 35-of-55 for 416 yards, with two touchdowns and one interception.
“We expect to go down and score. That’s the way our mentality is,” Sunseri said. “As an offense, we feel we should change the field position dramatically or score points. We’re just going to keep pushing forward and keep executing our offense.”
Despite the great stat line for the junior quarterback, Graham knows there is a lot of work that he can do before training camp starts in the summer.
“When the quarterback goes out on that field, he needs to be an extension of [offensive coordinator] Coach [Calvin] Magee, [wide receiver coach Mike] Norvell and myself,” Graham said. “That means he has to know the offense as well as we do and believe in this system as much as we do. That position’s development is the number one key to our success.”
Anthony Gonzalez, a redshirt freshman, started at quarterback for the Gold team. Before the game, Gonzalez was named an Ed Conway Award winner for being the most improved offensive player during spring practice.
“Anthony just keeps getting better,” Graham said. “He just does everything right. As he develops physically and gets stronger, I think the he’s going to be a special player.
Led by Gonzalez, the Gold team scored its first touchdown on a 4-yard run from freshman running back Randy Morris.
Gonzalez finished his day under center for the Gold team 9 for 26, with 86 yards and two interceptions.
He carried the ball 13 times for only four yards, a stat that is heavily influenced by sacks he took and that doesn’t accurately represent his mobility.
Gonzalez was also limited by the red jersey both quarterbacks wore to remind defensive players not to hit them in hopes of preventing injuries. The referees brought in to officiate the game whistled many plays dead in which they usually would have been able to gain a few yards after the contact.
Quarterback Mark Myers, also a redshirt freshman, did not play on Saturday due to a thumb injury. His absence forced Gonzalez to take all the reps for the Gold team.
Wide receiver Mike Shanahan had a big day as Sunseri’s top target and showed that he can be the premier receiver for the Panthers in the fall.
“You have to have the attitude that if we start at the 10-yard line we’re going to drive the ball 90 yards. We’re not going to huddle. We’re not going to stop the whole way. You have to be ready for every play,” Shanahan said. “In this offense, anybody can get the ball at any time. You have to run every route like you’re the primary receiver.”
Shanahan caught seven passes to lead all Pitt receivers in that category, with 158 yards and a touchdown.
“Mike Shanahan sticks out to me as a leader and as a play-maker,” Graham said. “He will be a special player for us as he gets in mental and physical shape.”
Kevin Harper, performing the kicking duties for both squads, drilled a 52-yarder through a break in the rain to bring the score to 24-7.
On the next drive, junior running back Desmond Brown punched in a 1-yard touchdown for the Blue to raise the score to 31-7.
Harper added three more points for Blue from 41 yards to increase the score to 34-7.
One of the defensive highlights of the day came when the ball slipped out of Sunseri’s hand and directly into the hands of the rushing linebacker Emanuel Rackard, who returned it for a 10-yard touchdown.
Despite that flub, Sunseri believes that the team has made a lot of improvement since the first practice under Graham just a little over a month ago and will take that positive momentum into the summer months of conditioning before practice starts again with training camp starts in August.
“We came a really long way. If you go back to our first practice, guys were kind of lazy getting up to the ball. They didn’t understand the tempo of the offense or what was expected out of them every play,” Sunseri said. “We got better each and every practice, and we’re going to keep trying to get better this offseason.”