PITTSBURGH -- No more Iowas. No more Notre Dames. No more partial efforts.
As they prepared to open league play, each and every Pitt player talked about the way they had failed to play a complete game this season. They knew what type of talent they had on this team, that they let wins slip away against the Hawkeyes and the Irish after blowing fourth-quarter leads.
They may have been the only ones who believed they were capable of what unfolded Thursday night. Pitt unleashed four games' worth of frustration on No. 16 USF, dominating the previously unbeaten Bulls 44-17.
Ray Graham was the best player on the field, running over, around and through the Bulls' defense to the tune of 226 yards and two touchdowns en route to 303 all-purpose yards. Tino Sunseri, who has been one of the most criticized players in the Big East, had his best performance of the season. The offensive line, down two starters, outmuscled USF up front. The defensive line played aggressively, forcing B.J. Daniels into his worst game of the season.
Pitt was more physical. Pitt was smarter. Pitt played with confidence. Pitt looked prepared. Pitt looked like a Big East contender.
"That's what our team is supposed to look like," nose tackle Myles Caragein said. "That's the Pitt way."
Pitt struggled to play the Pitt way in the first four games of the season. Expectations were high for the Panthers heading into the season, with new head coach Todd Graham promising up-tempo, high-octane offense. But there was nothing high octane about what they did to open the season. Graham repeatedly criticized his players for failing to execute his offense, and none took the brunt of that criticism more than Sunseri.
But it was not just Graham who criticized him. If you had turned on talk radio in Pittsburgh or checked a Panthers message board this week, you would have found an increasing chorus of people who wondered why Graham didn't just bench Sunseri already.
Sunseri had struggled throwing the deep ball, working at a quick tempo and getting rid of the ball in a timely fashion. The low point came last week in a loss to Notre Dame, when the Panthers scored just 12 points and Sunseri was sacked six times. The lack of a real threat in the passing game impacted Ray Graham, one of the most dynamic players in the Big East.
Without any real threat to hurt teams with the pass, Ray Graham was essentially shut down in the losses to Iowa and Notre Dame. Sunseri, the son of a coach, realized he was not living up to his capabilities. His father told him so in a phone conversation last week, in which he told his son to try to do better to adapt to the changes of the new offense.
Sunseri was resistant to change. More specifically, he was resistant to execute some of the run options required of the quarterback in the Graham style offense. That is something Sunseri never had to do before, and contributed to the heavy number of sacks he had taken this season. So Sunseri met with co-offensive coordinator Mike Norvell this week to hammer out how exactly he could do a better job when called on to run.
You saw the results. Sunseri went 22-of-33 for 216 yards with a touchdown. He also ran for 35 yards, including a 9-yard touchdown. It is safe to say USF never expected Sunseri to have as much success running the ball as he did.
But the Bulls should have been better prepared for Ray Graham, who was unstoppable. Graham unleashed some series spin moves. He broke tackles. He made defenders fall away helplessly. It was his second 200-yard game of the season, and his incredible talent was showcased in every move he made. Not only that, he caught four passes for 42 yards out of the backfield and returned two kickoffs for 35 yards.
Rather than try to play his hurry-up style in the fourth quarter, Todd Graham stuck with Ray Graham and the run game. That was in contrast to the end of the Iowa game, in which the Panthers never sustained a drive and Iowa was able to come back.
"Ray's been phenomenal," Todd Graham said. "I thought it was his best performance.This kid’s competitiveness is off the chart. He runs all over the field, and then he comes over there and he’s cheering on the kickoff team, he demanded that he returned the kickoffs. I love how he’s competing. These kids are transforming. I feel like we’re close. It’s just one game, but we’re close. All of us are really coming together and I’m proud of them."
The Panthers had dropped two straight and were in danger of a three-game losing streak with one of the best Big East teams coming to town. It's too early in the season to declare anything a must-win, but as safety Jarred Holley said, "That was needed. Big-time."
It was just one game, as Todd Graham said. But an important game to open league play. Now the effort has to be sustained for the remainder of the season.
"We're on a mission," Ray Graham said. "To win the Big East."