Team: Pittsburgh Panthers
W-L: 6-7 (1-0)
Top Offensive Performer: Ray Graham, RB
Top Defensive Performer: Aaron Donald, DT
Looking back, it seems that the only good thing to happen to Pittsburgh football this year was the announced move to the ACC. Despite missing five of the team’s 13 games, running back Ray Graham was still its best offensive player, and now he’s headed to the NFL. While they beat Syracuse in dramatic fashion to clinch a bowl berth, they proceeded to get pummeled by SMU. And now-former head coach Todd Graham, after just one season in the Steel City, bolted for Arizona State to take a job most people view as on par with the Pitt position. For every close win, they had a close loss and for every step forward, it was a step back. it was a mediocre, frustrating year for the Panthers all around.
As an offense, Pitt only managed 24.2 points per game, including four different instances of scoring 14 points or less. The passing game, atrocious before Graham’s injury, continued to suffer under the guidance of Tino Sunseri, leading some to call for the quarterback to hit the bench. The inconsistent Sunseri was more maddening to watch than ever in 2011, throwing 10 touchdowns to 11 picks, and connecting on just 247 of 385 throws. Backup running back Zach Brown, while serviceable, would still fall short of 400 rushing yards and only score five times in Graham’s absence. The group’s top four receivers only caught 10 touchdowns (see Sunseri’s stats), and none caught more than 53 passes total (Devin Street).On defense, the Panthers would fare much better, allowing just 22.8 points per game, never letting up more than 34 or less than 14 in any contest. While Pitt would force just 21 turnovers on the year, they also recorded 43 sacks. As much as that strategy seemed to work to a point, it also highlights some fundamental problems with the 2011 Panthers’ attack (something that will likely change next season). Pressuring the quarterback as much as they did, it resulted in few turnovers, pointing to a subpar secondary. When also taking into account that Pitt’s defense hovered near the middle of the pack against both the pass and run, it’s obvious these blitzes (which, by the way, only resulted in 270 lost yards) were ineffective.
Taking a look at Pitt going forward, it’s obvious that there’s plenty of work to do if they’d like to contend come their move to the ACC. Defensively, their speed is non-existent, and rather, employs a plodding strategy that has already proven itself ineffective in the long haul. On the offensive end, the load must be diversified so as to not rest on one man’s shoulders (why do you think Ray Graham’s declaring for the draft early?). By developing a multi-back run game and an actual passing attack, suddenly Pitt’s a well-rounded, consistent football team. Until then, though? It’s a long road back to relevance.