Pitt players, including quarterback Tino Sunseri (12) warm up in practice Thursday at Hoover High School in Hoover, Ala., in preparation for Saturday's BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham.
Mark Almond/Associated Press
Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri throws a pass during practice Thursday at Hoover High School in Hoover, Ala. Pitt plays Mississippi Saturday in the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham.
By Sam Werner Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
On the second play of the fourth quarter in Pitt's 35-17 win Sept. 15 against Virginia Tech, Tino Sunseri dropped back to pass.
He faced pressure and appeared to miscommunicate with wide receiver Devin Street. He threw a pass to the sideline that was intercepted by Hokie cornerback Antone Exum.
That play wasn't notable at the time. Sunseri, like every quarterback, had thrown his share of interceptions over his three years as a starter (21, to be precise).
It is remarkable that since that throw 111 days ago, Sunseri has thrown 270 passes, and every one of them has either found a receiver or fallen harmlessly to the turf.
Sunseri will wrap up his Pitt career in the BBVA Compass Bowl Saturday, and will enter the game with Division I-A's longest active streak of pass attempts without an interception. Even more impressive, with 193 yards passing against Mississippi, he would pass Dan Marino for second-place all time in career passing yards in the Pitt record books. Sunseri has thrown for 8,405 yards, Marino 8,597.
"He understands the importance of taking care of the football," coach Paul Chryst said. "That comes with experience. It comes from being burned on it and he's grown up with it."
Entering this season, "tumultuous" would have been a generous way to describe Sunseri's career. He showed promise as a first-year starter in Dave Wannstedt's pro-style system in 2010, but struggled mightily adapting to Todd Graham's spread system in 2011.
With 10 touchdowns and 11 interceptions last season, some fans questioned whether Sunseri, despite being a fifth-year senior and two-year starter, was even the right man to lead Pitt in the first year of the Chryst era.
"I mean, you have to be consistent all the time and whenever you are inconsistent, you can open up ways for people to say things," Sunseri said.
"The way I played my junior year, you could've said some things."
This year, Sunseri finished the regular season with 3,103 yards, 19 touchdowns and just two interceptions. In addition to returning to a pro-style offense, Chryst re-emphasized the importance of preparation and film work for Sunseri.
Despite the impressive numbers and improved decision-making, Sunseri was still the subject of criticism this season. He took some badly timed sacks in close losses to Syracuse and Notre Dame, and shouldered some responsibility for Pitt's up-and-down season.
"I feel like you can always win more games," he said when asked if he had any regrets about this season.
"Whenever you're 6-6, there [are] games that you want to go back and you want to play better in."
Sunseri has maintained that he doesn't listen to the noise outside of the program. After the big win against Virginia Tech, Sunseri was asked how he handles the criticism. He brusquely responded, "I just do my job." When pressed again on the subject, he repeated his original answer.
"I think he's handled it a lot better than me or anybody else would," fifth-year senior receiver Mike Shanahan said. "He doesn't seem to let things get to him. We don't talk about those things in the locker room -- what people are saying. We know what we do, we know what goes on in the building."
Sunseri, more than any other Pitt senior, symbolizes the tumult this program has experienced over the last three seasons and four head coaches. As the Panthers prepare to transition into a new season with the same head coach for the first time in three seasons, Sunseri admitted he couldn't help but think about what could have been.
"Could you imagine if this was last year?" he said. "You'd have another year of going through spring ball, going through these bowl practices, understanding how many more reps you'd get."
Instead, Sunseri will move on. He's slated to play in the Raycom All-Star Classic Jan. 19 in Montgomery, Ala., before preparing for Pitt's pro day. He could face an uphill battle to make an NFL roster, but his improved performance this season has at least given pro teams a reason to take a second look.
As for how he will be remembered at Pitt, those assessing Sunseri's legacy will have to juxtapose Pitt's 20-18 record with Sunseri's strong senior year numbers and elevated place in the school's record books.
"I don't know what [my legacy] is," Sunseri said. "It's whatever people make it. I have no control over that."