Football: Lewis, defense help Panthers crush Penguins in season opener

By Adam Littman

Before the season, Pitt football coach Dave Wannstedt said one of his biggest concerns about his… Before the season, Pitt football coach Dave Wannstedt said one of his biggest concerns about his team was the running back position.

After freshman Dion Lewis’ performance in Pitt’s opening game win over Youngstown State earlier today, Wannstedt should feel a bit more confident.

In his first collegiate action, Lewis rushed 20 times for 129 yards and two touchdowns. He also caught two passes for 10 yards and one touchdown. Lewis was responsible for Pitt’s first three touchdowns, helping the Panthers to a 38-3 win.

“I was really impressed with what Dion did today,” Wannstedt said. “We knew he was fast, but he will break tackles.”

Lewis showed his evasive skills early in the game. On Pitt’s second drive, Lewis broke a scoreless tie with a 16-yard touchdown run. It looked like he might be tackled around the 5-yard line, but Lewis faked like he was going to cut to the outside of the defender but juked inside. The defender reached his arm out, but Lewis plowed right by him for the easy score.

In the second quarter, Lewis had consecutive runs of more than 20 yards. The play after a 28-yard run, Lewis rushed 25 yards, including the last three yards with a defender hanging off his back, nearly missing a touchdown. Lewis hit the pylon, but was ruled out-of-bounds at the 1-yard line. The next play Lewis lowered his shoulder and ran directly into a defensive lineman, pushing the defender into the endzone for his second score.

Wannstedt praised the offensive line’s blocking during the run, as did Lewis.

“They deserve the credit,” Lewis said of the line. “I just run, they do the dirty work.”

Conversely, Wannstedt said he wasn’t pleased with the offensive line’s protection in the passing game. While they didn’t allow any sacks by Youngstown State, quarterbacks Bill Stull and Tino Sunseri were under pressure from the defense frequently when dropping back to pass.

But it wasn’t just the Penguin defense that put pressure on Stull, so did the Pitt fans. In the second drive of the entire season, he was booed by the home fans after consecutive incomplete passes set up a fourth down.

“That’s not giving him much time,” Wannstedt said of the boos.

Stull bounced back, finishing the game 11-16 for 123 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.

“You have to block [the booing] out,” Stull said. “You just have to stay focused on the game and be confident in yourself.”

While Stull did complete most of his passes, many of them were screen passes thrown a running back or wide receiver right around the line of scrimmage. Both of Stull’s touchdown passes were on screens. One was to a wide open Lewis would ran into the endzone untouched, and the other was to senior tight end Dorin Dickerson, who broke a tackle and scored.

The biggest pass play of the game was caught by Jonathan Baldwin. The sophomore receiver is the Panthers’ most explosive player on offense, so it doesn’t come as a shock he was the recipient of the pass. However, it was a little surprising who threw it.

Freshman quarterback Tino Sunseri entered the game mid-way through the third quarter. After a hand-off to Lewis and incomplete pass where he was hit as he tried to throw, Sunseri unleashed a high, looping throw downfield that Baldwin jumped up and wrestled from a defender. The 42-yard pass set up a Dan Hutchins field goal to give Pitt a 24-3 advantage.

The next series Stull came back in the game, and led the Panthers to another score with his touchdown pass to Dickerson. While the outcome was positive, Stull wasn’t meant to be back out on the field.

“Once I put Tino in he was supposed to stay in the rest of the game,” Wannstedt said. “That was a miscommunication on my part.”

Wannstedt said he was preoccupied with something else on the sidelines and didn’t realize Stull went back out for the series. Sunseri played every series after that one, going 5-8 for 80 yards and a touchdown, a 6-yard pass to Aundre Wright.

Sunseri came into get some experience and because the Panthers had a sizeable lead. A big reason for that sizeable lead was the defense.

As expected, the defense was dominating. The line put pressure on Brandon Summers, Youngstown’s quarterback, all game. The Panther defense tallied six sacks, resulting in a loss of 38 yards.

“They’re the best defensive line in the country,” linebacker Adam Gunn said.

In his first game back after breaking his neck in last year’s season opener, Gunn finished with eight tackles and two sacks.

“After that first hit I forgot I broke my neck,” Gunn said.

Dom DeCicco and Ricky Gary each picked off passes, and Pitt held the Penguins to 159 yards of total offense, or 2.8 yards gained per play.

Things get a bit tougher next week when the Panthers are on the road to face Buffalo. Although it’s a road game against a Division I opponent, unlike Division II Youngstown State, Pitt will be ready for the Bulls.

“Having an opening game like this gives us some confidence,” Wannstedt said.