Pitt's Sunseri not lacking confidence

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The Pitt coaching staff opted to call a timeout after Tino Sunseri completed a 19-yard pass to Mike Shanahan to give the Panthers a first-and-10 at the Utah 14 with 40 seconds to play in their 27-24 overtime loss last Thursday.

As Sunseri ran off the field, he yelled to the coaches on the sideline, "Put this on me." Meaning, he wanted the ball in his hands with the game on the line.

It was probably the most tangible sign that Sunseri, who has impressed his teammates and coaches with his confidence and his leadership ability, isn't going to blink when games are on the line.

And that's not all. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound redshirt sophomore showed signs that he is capable of being an excellent quarterback.

"He is very confident and he gained some confidence as the game went on," said coach Dave Wannstedt, who indicated he liked Sunseri's fire and enthusiasm. "So I could see how he could feel that way and think that is one of the hidden intangibles that he has that people who really don't understand what goes into playing that position wouldn't recognize.

"I don't think you play that position without that."

While things didn't turn out well -- the Panthers had to settle for a field goal at the end of regulation and Sunseri threw an interception in overtime -- the learning experience will be invaluable. Sunseri said he has always been able to perform well under pressure and wouldn't be afraid to call for the ball if the Panthers are in a similar situation again this season.

"I don't feel pressure. Whenever I was on the field, I was in my groove; I understand what I am supposed to do. This is my second year in coach [Frank] Cignetti's system and I felt comfortable out there," Sunseri said. "And I want the ball in my hands. ... When it is in my hands I feel like I can get it to those playmakers to make plays.

"Now, I did say that [to the coaches], but I think it was more I was in the zone because I don't remember saying it. But I wouldn't change it; I'd want the ball in my hands again. When you are in the zone, you want the ball in your hands as a quarterback because they feed off of that.

"The other players can read your body language, and I would do it again and say the same thing."

As debuts go, Sunseri's compared well with the past three regular starting quarterbacks at Pitt -- Rod Rutherford, Tyler Palko and Bill Stull.

In 2002, Rutherford was 9 of 22 for 97 yards, 3 interceptions and 2 touchdowns in a 27-14 win against Ohio. In '04, Palko was 6 of 19 for 49 yards, a touchdown and an interception in a 24-7 win against Ohio. In '07 in a 27-3 victory against Eastern Michigan, Stull was 14 of 20 for 177 yards and a touchdown. Now consider that Sunseri was 16 of 28 for 184 yards and a touchdown and an interception in a hostile road environment at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

Of course, true to his personality, Sunseri wouldn't want it any other way.

"I loved it, I loved being under the spotlights. That is just the kind of player I think I am," Sunseri said. "I think that when you want to be the best you have to play the best, and Utah is definitely a good team. And I wouldn't want to start off any other way. I thought we played well except for a couple of mistakes."

Sunseri isn't lacking in confidence, but he does need experience, and his learning curve will be much faster given the tough situations he was put in against Utah. Against New Hampshire on Saturday, he should be better prepared for things like the speed of the game and how much more quickly he must find open receivers.

"I learned a lot just watching the film," Sunseri said. "There were some plays I should have stayed on my progression, maybe I came off a little bit fast and had I stayed on the progression it might have been a totally different outcome.

"I hated that whole thing with everybody saying I needed experience, but it does go a long way, just being able to go back and look back at a certain situation and see where guys were open and you didn't get them the ball and next time you will."

NOTES -- Starting safety Dom DeCicco (hamstring), safety Andrew Taglianetti (groin), tailback Ray Graham (knee) and defensive end Greg Romeus (back) are all still officially day to day. The Panthers, per Big East rules, will release their official injury report for the New Hampshire game today.

Paul Zeise: pzeise@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1720.


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