2011 ACC Season Recap: Pittsburgh Panthers

If Pitt Hopes to Improve in 2012, it Starts With Quarterback Tino Sunseri

Team: Pittsburgh Panthers

W-L: 6-7 (1-0)

Postseason: 28-6 BBVA Compass Bowl loss to SMU

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). Continue reading

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2011 Season’s Final ACC Power Rankings

Logan Thomas and Virginia Tech's Disappointing Finish Won't Stop Them From Finishing as the ACC's Top Team

In these conference rankings, I list the ACC teams, one through 14, as if Pitt and Syracuse were already in the league. Yes, adding the additional teams may seem pointless now, but wait until they officially join. Then it’ll seem like old news and we can get past that initial awkwardness. No, I won’t reconsider. On to the final rankings of the 2011 season:

1. Virginia Tech Hokies (11-3) (7-2) (LW: 1): The Hokies do end the year on a two-game losing streak, however, their final game was competitive and entertaining to watch. Had it not been for Danny Coale‘s touchdown being called back late in the contest, Virginia Tech could have easily walked away with a Sugar Bowl victory and actually allowed the conference to keep some dignity this postseason.

2. Clemson Tigers (10-4) (7-2) (LW: 3): Speaking of dignity, the ACC champs lost all of theirs in a 70-33 drubbing at the hands of West Virginia in the Orange Bowl. The loss would go down as one of the worst in bowl or BCS history, and add to the frustrating concept that is Clemson football. Coach Dabo Swinney has taken this team to new heights, now he must surpass those, too, and deliver a title contender.

3. Florida State Seminoles (9-4) (5-3) (LW: 2): The ‘Noles were one of the ACC’s two bowl victors after defeating the oft-overrated Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the Champs Sports Bowl. While never overly impressive in the matchup, it was a continuation of a theme for Florida State — never appearing all that dominant, but getting the job done when unchallenged by their opponent.

4. NC State Wolfpack (8-5) (4-4) (LW: 6): The conference’s other victor defeated Louisville in their bowl game to complete an improbable and fantastic run to end the year. In defeating the likes of Clemson, Maryland and the Cardinals consecutively, the Wolfpack won with both offense and defense — suddenly showing themselves a team that could play up to any opponent, regardless of how favored they may be. Above all, QB Mike Glennon was most impressive, throwing for 11 touchdowns over those final three games. Continue reading

BBVA Compass Bowl Recap: SMU over Pittsburgh, 28-6

SMU's J.J. McDermott Led His Team to a Commanding 28-6 Victory Over Pitt in the BBVA Compass Bowl

What Happened: While neither team really bothered rushing the ball (71 total yards on the ground between the two teams), it was the SMU defense that surprisingly led the Mustangs to a big victory over the Pittsburgh Panthers in the BBVA Compass Bowl. Without a legitimate rushing game, SMU still managed to move the ball fairly well, racking up 239 yards through the air, while also owning a slight lead in time of possession. Given the strength of the defenses in this matchup, both squads combined for just 25 first downs on the game — a strong statement on just how inefficient both gameplans ended up being.

Who’s to Blame: Pitt was obviously under-coached by their interim head coach Keith Patterson, who was probably far more focused on his upcoming gig with Arkansas State next season. With no real defensive scheme, nor any real field presence by quarterback Tino Sunseri, the Panthers looked overmatched by their supposedly lesser foe. Failing to score until 33 minutes into the contest, Pitt appeared to be in disarray, with little production on offense, nor the personnel to truly capitalize on what should have been a weak Mustangs’ front. Continue reading

BBVA Compass Bowl Preview: Pittsburgh vs. SMU

Pittsburgh and SMU Square Off in the BBVA Compass Bowl

In a battle of two disappointing teams, the Pittsburgh Panthers take on the SMU Mustangs in the BBVA Compass Bowl. As is usually the case with a few of the lower-tier bowls, this one is oddly positioned amidst the BCS games and grabs very little attention in the lead-up to the National Championship Game. Still, the matchup of (soon to be) former and future Big East squads promises to be entertaining as both look to end tumultuous years on a high note.

Bowl Game: BBVA Compass Bowl

Location: Birmingham, Ala.

First Year: 2006 (as PapaJohns.com Bowl)

2012 Participants: Pittsburgh Panthers (6-6) vs. Southern Methodist Mustangs (7-5)

Last Meeting: 1983, a 7-3 Cotton Bowl win by SMU

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Pittsburgh (previous bowl game: 27-10 win over Kentucky in 2011 BBVA Compass Bowl)

Following the sudden departure of head coach Todd Graham, the Pitt program appears to be in disarray. Failing to live up to the hype of an uptempo, spread offense, the Panthers managed to put up just 25.8 points per game — staying competitive by way of their defense. Though not overly spectacular, Aaron Donald and the front four allowed just 22 points per game, which was enough for their late rally to bowl eligibility. That group will not face the stiffest test in SMU’s offense, but Pitt’s own offense, without the benefit of injured star running back Ray Graham will likely struggle to establish any consistency. The keys to success will likely be the defense forcing turnovers, and the play of quarterback Tino Sunseri. When Sunseri played well down the stretch, the team’s results were directly related. Otherwise, fans can reference their three losses over their final six games.

SMU (previous bowl game: 16-14 loss to Army in 2010 Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl)

Amid the excitement of heading to a BCS league, and beating rival TCU, SMU stuttered down the stretch to a 7-5 finish, and third place in Conference USA‘s West division. Opening up with five wins in their first six games, the Mustangs were reminding fans of the Pony Express Southwest Conference days by racking up points and actually playing some great defense. Once the wheels came off though, they fell back down to earth rather hard. The passing game, while ranked 23rd in the FBS, is prone to turnovers behind quarterback J.J. McDermott. Their defense was also unspectacular, with teams scoring around 30 points per game over the final six. Their strength, as it ends up, was the rushing game — at least until stellar starter Zach Line was forced to hang’em up this year due to injury. Without that element of the offense, they stand little chance.

Verdict

Neither defense is anything to truly write home about, and both offenses have left much to be desired in the second half of their respective seasons. While Sunseri has never been overly impressive for Pitt, he has done what McDermott’s failed to over at SMU — put his team in a position to win late in the season. In spite of the Mustangs being the ones playing with a familiar face on the sidelines (June Jones), Pitt will ride its front four and the motivation to prove to Todd Graham wrong to a close, but still meaningful victory. Prediction: Pitt 23, SMU 21

Discover Orange Bowl Recap: West Virginia over Clemson, 70-33

Geno Smith Powered West Virginia to a Huge 70-33 Win Over Clemson in the Orange Bowl

What Happened: One of the biggest embarrassments in bowl game history, for starters. Already out of the game by halftime, the Clemson Tigers fell in a fashion never seen before in a BCS game, 70-33 to the West Virginia Mountaineers, in the Discover Orange Bowl. The Mountaineers, who had scored 75 points total in their previous three games, racked up nearly 600 offensive yards against Clemson’s historically porous defense in this one. WVU Quarterback Geno Smith tied a bowl record with six touchdown passes and the team also set a new record for points in a postseason game. Leading just 28-20 with five minutes to go in the first half, West Virginia delivered an early knockout blow, with three touchdowns to close out the period. Their first-half output alone eclipsed the total points scored in yesterday’s Sugar Bowl. Most damning for Clemson is that it could have been so much worse had their opponent not taken their foot off the gas by late in the third.

Who’s to Blame: Pretty much anyone associated with the Clemson football team, honestly. West Virginia was a good team this season, but not stellar by any stretch of the imagination — and surely not the worldbeaters we saw tonight. Head coach Dabo Swinney did not have his defense prepared for the speed at which the Mountaineers could score, and he still has yet to differentiate the offense. In this contest specifically, running back Andre Ellington was moving the ball very well (10 carries for 116 yards), but then everything switched gears to quarterback Tajh Boyd. Failing to connect with his receivers (star Sammy Watkins recorded just five catches for 66 yards and a score), the offense stalled, along with Clemson’s chances during the wild second quarter in which WVU scored 35 points. Continue reading