Pittsburgh is keeping quarterback Tino Sunseri and receiver Jon Baldwin off limits to the media this week in an effort to make sure the two don't become distracted before Saturday's game against Louisville. And anyway, now is not the time to be messing with their minds.
Sunseri and Baldwin finally got a long-awaited connection going in last week's 41-21 win over Rutgers. Baldwin, the preseason Biletnikoff Award candidate, had only two 100-yard days before catching five balls for 139 yards, including a 45-yard touchdown. Pitt had struggled all season in throwing the deep ball to its star.
"Everybody assumes you just drop back, a guy runs deep and you throw the ball," head coach Dave Wannstedt said. "But you've got to have the right play call at the right time and the right coverage. Up to this point, we had plays in every game where we attempted to do that, and it had always been something. It was a little bit of protection, a little bit of coverage, a little bit of the throw, a little bit of the route."
The deep passing game is starting to come together. So is the entire Panthers offense.
The blocking problems that plagued them early in the season have improved since Lucas Nix was shifted from tackle to guard. The tight end spot has been solidified with better play from Mike Cruz and Brock DeCicco. Sunseri has progressed every week, and in his two Big East conference games, he has completed 74.5 percent of his passes for 588 yards and seven touchdowns, with just one flukish interception. Dion Lewis has begun to look like his old self, rushing for 130 yards last week against Rutgers. Devin Street has emerged as a strong No. 3 receiver option.
The final piece seemed to be getting Baldwin more involved. Against Utah, Miami and Syracuse, he had a total of only eight catches. Baldwin collected 111 yards at Notre Dame, but more than half of that came on one big play. The junior told reporters after Saturday's game that he and Sunseri had recently been spending more time together after practice trying to get their timing down.
"It's him having trust in me and me having trust in him," Baldwin said. "Now he knows exactly where I'm going to be when I run deep routes, so it makes it a lot easier."
Baldwin showed last week why it's a good idea to throw his way. Twice Rutgers had good coverage against him, with a safety coming over for help. And twice the 6-foot-5 receiver simply made what Wannstedt called "superstar catches."
It also helps that Sunseri is more willing to stay in the pocket longer and go through his reads. Earlier in the season, especially against Miami, he seemed too quick to take the dump-off option.
"A lot has to do with confidence and how long can I hang in there," Wannstedt said. "It's confidence in yourself, confidence in the line."
Pitt's offense is turning into the multifaceted attack many envisioned in the preseason. The Panthers have scored 86 points their past two games, and on Saturday Pitt had a 300-yard passer, 100-yard rusher and 100-yard receiver in the same game for the first time in 10 years. And remember this came against one of the best defenses in the league in Rutgers.
Sunseri completed passes to seven different players on Saturday, including seven to fullback Henry Hynoski.
"It's a sign of progress when the quarterback is distributing the ball to the guy that's open," Wannstedt said. "That's what Frank Cignetti preaches: take what they give you."
And if Pitt can continue to take advantage of the deep ball with Baldwin, the Panthers will be very hard for anyone to defend.