Football: Iowa matchup first challenge of the year for Pitt

By Lauren Kirschman

After two underwhelming wins on its home field, the Pitt football team will face Iowa on… After two underwhelming wins on its home field, the Pitt football team will face Iowa on Saturday in the Panthers’ first road test of the season.

A week after the Maine Black Bears sacked quarterback Tino Sunseri seven times and the defense gave up two late-fourth-quarter touchdowns, Pitt is still looking to completely gel, both offensively and defensively, with head coach Todd Graham’s no-huddle system.

“The biggest thing during week one and two is a lack of execution,” Graham said. “I think at the end of both games we’ve become complacent. It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.”

Sunseri has been a favorite topic among fans and media alike this week after he struggled against Maine, throwing for 224 yards with two interceptions. Graham put freshman backup quarterback Trey Anderson in the game following Sunseri’s second interception, a move the coach said he planned before the game even started.

Graham added that Sunseri is his starting quarterback.

“Has he played well? No, he hasn’t played well,” Graham said at a press conference on Monday. “He’s made some good plays, but he’s got to play better and execute our system and I’ve got a lot of confidence in him. I’ve seen him do it in practice. I’ve seen him do it in games. And in this system, there’s no question I think he can be successful, and he’s a guy that has come a long way in his work ethic and all those things.”

Pitt quarterbacks coach Todd Dodge echoed Graham’s words.

“Tino’s our guy,” Dodge said on Wednesday. “There is way too much he’s doing good in this offense to put him on a short leash.”

Dodge said that there were stretches against Maine during which Sunseri executed the offense almost perfectly, but others where he was inconsistent — such as in reading the defensive ends. That will take work, Dodge added, because it’s the first time Sunseri’s done it in a live situation.

“The guy will absolutely respond to constructive criticism,” Dodge said. “And he has responded over the last two days [of practice].”

Redshirt junior running back Ray Graham has been a bright spot for the Panther offensively, as he leads the nation with a 161-yard average per game.

“My goal is to just go out there and have fun,” Ray Graham said. “Just get the team a victory. It’s just not me out there, we’re all doing this together.”

Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said he knows his team will face a challenge against Pitt’s running game with Ray Graham on the field.

“Probably the first thing we would tell you is he’s a strong runner, really a strong, aggressive type guy, so you know you’re going to have to tackle him,” Ferentz said in a press conference on Tuesday. “He’s got good vision, like most backs do. But he’s a guy you really have to tackle. He’s a good football player.”

The Panthers will most likely add another dynamic to their offense against the Hawkeyes as Anthony Gonzalez returns from a four-month suspension for possesion of marijuana. Todd Graham said the backup quarterback turned three-back would see time against Iowa.

“I’m excited for him. I think he’s worked his tail off,” Todd Graham said. “He’s a very selfless guy in that he’s going to play another position for us this year. I’m excited about him. I’m really pleased how he’s handled this situation. I’ve got a lot of confidence in him and I’ll be real honest with you, we watch his development and I’m excited. I think he can really help us.”

Defensively, the most important goal for the Panthers might be to stop the run.

“I think the key in this game is going to be playing hard-nosed smash mouth,” Todd Graham said. “A 3-yard gain is a positive gain for them. That doesn’t bother them one bit. They’ll line up and do it again and again and again and again.”

Iowa is coming off of a triple-overtime loss to Iowa State in which running back Marcus Coker collected 143 yards and two touchdowns, but the Panthers have defended the run well so far this season.

If Pitt manages to shut down the running game, the Panthers will also have to face a passing attack featuring two solid wide receivers in senior Marvin McNutt and junior Keenan Davis.

McNutt averages 100.5 yards per game, and Davis averages 62.5 yards per game. The two have combined for three touchdowns this year.

“You’re going to have to control their two really good wide receivers that are big-time playmakers,” Todd Graham said. “You can’t give up cheap ones. That’s what it’s going to boil down to. We’ve got to get takeaways; we’ve got to give our offense a short field because I think the strength of their team, no doubt, is their defense and their special teams.”

Pitt redshirt junior defensive back Jarred Holley added that the Panthers are going to have to key in on the Iowa tight ends, especially focusing in on play-action plays.

“We’re really close to putting together a complete game,” Holley said. “We need to really talk and communicate out there.”

He added that the Panthers might have opportunities to get some much-needed takeaways against the Hawkeyes. Junior quarterback James Vandenberg is starting consistently for the first time. He completed 16 of 28 passes, 207 yards and two touchdowns in Iowa’s 44-41 loss to Iowa Sate.

It will be especially important for the defense to play well against Iowa, as Todd Graham said the Hawkeye offensive line is the best the Panthers will have faced so far this season. He pointed to center James Ferentz and left tackle Riley Reiff in particular.

“They’re very big, physical, and grind it out,” Graham said. “They’re not going to beat themselves.”

Graham said he’s excited for the challenge the game against Iowa presents.

“Going in there, it’s going to be loud, it’s going to be hostile for our offense,” he said. “Our defense has to play big time and I expect them to do that. I’ve got no doubt in my mind they’re going to do that, and I’m looking forward to our guys playing their best game this week.”