After offense struggles, Pitt tops Maine 35-29

By Lauren Kirschman

Maine sacked quarterback Tino Sunseri seven times and the Panther offense… Maine sacked quarterback Tino Sunseri seven times and the Panthers struggled again, but Pitt defeated the Black Bears 35-29 on Saturday afternoon.

Much like in Pitt’s 35-16 win over Buffalo last week, the offense seemed to find more rhythm in the second half. But the team’s adjustment to new head coach Todd Graham’s system is still a work in progress.

Right guard Lucas Nix said the blame for the seven sacks falls on the offensive line.

“We have five guys and they didn’t bring a lot more than five,” he said. “We’re still working out some little things, but we will get it corrected.”

Even Pitt’s experienced defense didn’t impress against the Black Bears. Graham said that overall, the Panthers are making too many mistakes.

“We’re killing ourselves making mental errors,” he said. “We’re playing good defense for periods of time, and then we turn the ball over on offense.”

Maine head coach Jack Cosgrove said that going into the game, he felt his team would be able to attack Pitt in the passing game. The Black Bears succeeded, burning the Pitt defense with several long passes.

“We then figured out some things that we could do — some sprint and play-action things — and I thought our quarterback kept his pose,” Cosgrove said.

Pitt’s own quarterback threw two interceptions and wasn’t aided by several dropped passes by his receivers.

“Mistakes happen in the heat of battle,” Sunseri said about the offense. “When you’re out there you have to make fast decisions, and sometimes you make improper decisions.”

Sunseri finished the game with 224 yards on 21-35 passing and two interceptions.

Although Graham said that Sunseri has the most difficult job in his system, Sunseri said he embraces his role as a quarterback — mistakes and all.

“You are a quarterback your entire life,” he said. “I like that responsibility. I like making the plays, making the throws. And when I make a mistake, I like watching the film and fixing it.”

Wide receiver Mike Shanahan said he doesn’t think the offense regressed this week.

“I don’t think it got worse,” he said. “I think it’s just the little things. Down in the red zone we had some opportunities to finish and we have to score touchdowns. We can’t settle for field goals.”

The Panthers could’ve run the ball on every play and avoided Sunseri’s two interceptions, Graham said, but he wanted a prolific and dynamic offense.

Graham added that the defense could have stopped blitzing and still have been effective, but he wanted the defense to attack.

“The most positive thing I can say about that game is that we’re 2-0,” Graham said. “We definitely played down to the level of competition. We didn’t play very well.”

After Sunseri’s  second interception, backup quarterback Trey Anderson entered the game early in the fourth quarter and led a Panther scoring drive which increased the Pitt lead from 28-15 to 35-15.

Anderson completed four of five passes for 26 yards — including two third-down conversion passes — during the drive, before Zach Brown ran one yard into the end zone for a touchdown.

Todd Graham said that he planned to use Anderson in the game and that the change at quarterback wasn’t a reflection on Sunseri’s performance.

“I still have 100 percent belief in Tino,” Graham said. “He has a difficult job. Tino is our No. 1 quarterback. I believe in him and what he’s doing. He’s just got to get better.”

At least one Panther doesn’t need any more time to adjust to the offensive changes.  Running back Ray Graham racked up 121 yards and three touchdowns on 28 carries.

“He is just absolutely phenomenal,” Coach Todd Graham said. “It’s not just his skills; it’s how he plays the game with tremendous passion.”

With the Panthers holding on to a slim five-point lead in the third quarter and the Heinz Field crowd growing restless, Ray Graham took over on Pitt’s next drive and scored his third touchdown of the day.

Sunseri completed a pass to Graham for 13 yards to start the drive, then another eight-yard pass brought the Panthers to the Maine 24. Sunseri found Graham again to move Pitt to the 1 yard line, then Graham ran the ball in.

Maine head coach Jack Cosgrove said Pitt responded like he expected the team to.

“We closed the gap, and like a good football team should, they responded,” he said. “I don’t think it was on our end. I think Pitt said, ‘Holy cow, we got a ball game here.’ I credit them for responding the way a good football team should.”

Pitt led 28-15 following a two-point conversion from Sunseri to Mike Shanahan.

The Pitt defense performed well early as Maine didn’t pick up a first down until 13:28 remaining in the second quarter. But the Black Bears used that momentum to fuel a scoring drive, ending with a 22-yard pass from quarterback Warren Smith to wide receiver Derek Buttles for a touchdown to slim the Panther advantage to 12-7.

“Last week we watched the film on the Pitt vs. Buffalo game, and Pitt got beat on a similar play like that — but the guy dropped it for Buffalo twice,” Smith said. “We knew if we came in and did man-to-man coverage, then we would be able to do that double play move.”

Graham said the Panthers need to improve defensively.

“We’re giving up stupid plays in the passing game,” he said. “It’s ridiculous and it should not be happening.”

Pitt responded two possessions later as Sunseri found Hubie Graham down the middle for a 25-yard pickup. Ray Graham ran the ball in from 3 yards out a play later.

Sunseri successfully rushed in for the two-point conversion to put Pitt ahead 20-7 going into the break.

The second half opened with a promising Pitt scoring drive, but Maine cornerback Kendall James intercepted a Sunseri pass to the end zone to keep the Panther advantage at 13 points.

Maine slimmed the Pitt advantage to 20-15 when Smith found Derek Session wide open in the end zone and holder Chris Treister took the ball in for a two-point conversion after a botched snap.

Pitt ran 90 plays, finishing with 381 yards to Maine’s 371. The Panthers picked up 124 rushing yards, whereas Maine gained just 37 yards on the ground.

“Last year at this point we were 1-1 and coming off the loss to Utah,” Sunseri said. “We’re 2-0 and a lot of teams around college football right now are getting upset by teams that are beneath them.”

Pitt travels to Iowa on Sept. 17 for its first road game of the season. Kickoff is set for noon.