Pitt coach Todd Graham spent the better part of his weekly news conference Monday afternoon accepting the blame for his team's lackluster performance in a 34-10 loss Saturday to Rutgers.
Graham was critical of himself for his inability to prepare the Panthers well enough against the Scarlet Knights. He was surprisingly candid, stating "our guys didn't play hard like they should." And in the same breath, saying the offense "at times looked confused."
It was a brutally honest assessment. But in the end, Graham had a hard time answering the only question that everyone who follows this team wanted to know:
How can the Panthers, who looked so thoroughly dominating in a Sept. 29 blowout of then-No. 16-ranked South Florida, look so inept against a team picked to finish in the bottom half of the Big East Conference?
The performance has Graham and his players this week searching for answers as they prepare to play a non-conference home game against Utah.
"You're frustrated," Graham said. "When you execute, you see what it looks like against South Florida. We took two giant steps forward against South Florida. And, no question, we took a couple back [last] week. Our guys know that and they're focused on getting those things corrected and getting better.
"We showed what our potential is. We have the potential to be a very good football team. We have the potential to win a championship. We're going to go to work to get things corrected to get there."
Inconsistency has been an issue all season. This is the same team that was beating Iowa by three touchdowns on the road in the second half and managed to lose that game with a poor fourth-quarter performance.
Many of those same problems that contributed to that loss came up again against Rutgers. Mental errors, missed assignments, untimely turnovers and mistakes in the kicking game.
And coaching decisions left open for debate.
Graham, in his first year at Pitt, refused to pin the problems on the fact players are learning a new system. He said the defense is having no such problems adapting to a new system, citing that unit's ability to shut down two of the Division I-A's top receivers in Michael Floyd of Notre Dame and Mohamed Sanu of Rutgers.
The biggest problem, Graham said, is the offense. That is a tough pill to swallow for the coach, whose "high-octane" offensive philosophy not only is the subject of a university ad campaign but a mindset for the way he is building his program.
It might go a long way in explaining his decision to pull starting quarterback Tino Sunseri at halftime of the Rutgers game when the Panthers trailed by only a field goal.
Graham said he has not second-guessed the decision to insert freshman Trey Anderson into the game. But it was Anderson's interception on the second series of the half that set up a touchdown and a 13-3 lead that got the ball rolling toward a Rutgers runaway.
After the interception, Graham turned to Sunseri to finish the game. Graham said Monday that he was trying to "create some type of spark" by making the change at quarterback. He also said the coaching staff felt Anderson's mobility could have helped against the heavy pressure the Scarlet Knights were bringing.
Graham later said Sunseri, who has five touchdowns and four interceptions through the first six games, is his starting quarterback, something he has repeated for several weeks.
No other personnel changes -- aside from a couple of injured players returning to the lineup -- appear to be forthcoming, either. All of which means the players who are now playing the majority of the snaps have to find a way to develop some consistency.
"We have to stay the course," Graham said. "I talk to them about the Pitt way. It's how you do the little things. It's not the big things. It's the little things you do that make big things happen. That's a coach [Johnny] Majors quote and I really believe that. We have good people on this team that will show great resolve. I believe they'll bounce back from this and get better."
NOTES -- Graham said he is hopeful that starting offensive lineman Lucas Nix and starting linebacker Todd Thomas will be ready for the Utah game. Both players were injured against South Florida and did not play against Rutgers. ... When asked whether redshirt freshman Mark Myers could figure into the mix at quarterback, Graham replied: "Mark is basically our third quarterback and our backup punter and is doing a good job. We're not going to play musical quarterbacks. You can't do that and get ready to play a football game." ... Receiver Mike Shanahan believes the older players on the team have to show better leadership. "Guys who have been playing for a while now have to step up and take ownership," he said. "Coach says it's on them, but at some point, it's on us to go out and execute."
Ray Fittipaldo: email@example.com or 412-263-1230.