First systems check is at Iowa

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Pitt coach Todd Graham believes the Panthers are "really close" to executing the offense and defense at a high level, but he knows that there still could be some growing pains learning the nuances of each system.

He also knows the window to figure things out is about to expire as the Panthers are about to enter a rugged part of their schedule, starting Saturday at Iowa.

The Hawkeyes (1-1) are coming off a tough triple-overtime loss to rival Iowa State and aren't as dominant as they have been in recent years, but they still figure to be a huge upgrade over Pitt's first two opponents -- Buffalo and Maine -- especially since the Panthers will be on the road for the first time this season.


Saturday
  • Who: Pitt (2-0) at Iowa (1-1).
  • When: Noon.
  • Where: Kinnick Stadium, Iowa City, Iowa.
  • TV: ESPN2.
  • Noteworthy: This will be Pitt's first trip to Iowa in 60 years. Its most recent game in Iowa City was a 34-17 loss Oct. 13, 1951.

Graham said he has seen some good things from the Panthers (2-0) in each of their first two games but not nearly enough for his liking and, more important, not nearly enough to be competitive against the rest of their schedule.

A great example is on defense.

In their 35-29 victory against Maine, the Black Bears had 13 drives. Six of them were three-and-outs, a seventh was four plays and a punt and two others were six plays and a punt, meaning the defense was excellent for nine of them.

But the other four drives ... three of them went for 10 or more plays and a touchdown and the other was a two-play drive which included a 42-yard pass play.

"It is good to be going into week three at 2-0, but naturally there are a whole bunch of things we have to get better at," Graham said.

"Looking at the film [from the Maine game], we had opportunities to blow the game out and we didn't do that. We've played 26 series on defense and we've had [nine] three-and-outs, which, we should be totally dominating by having that many three-and-outs.

"The last two minutes of both games we've made some really poor mistakes and things like that. But all those things are correctable."

Graham said he believes that the defense simply stopped playing,.

He said he is not going to allow the defense to get lazy at the end of games and that his focus this week for the defense is to play a complete game, and he also would like to see the unit do a better job of creating turnovers.

He also would like to see the offense do a better job of protecting the football.

Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri threw two interceptions against Maine, but Graham said an even bigger issue is Sunseri "freelancing" on some plays rather than trusting the offense and executing it.

He said one of Sunseri's interceptions Saturday was a ball thrown to a receiver "who wasn't even in our progression."

And until Sunseri learns to trust the offense, he will continue to struggle with consistency.

"We have the ball, we're going in to make it 35-7 and we throw an interception in the end zone," Graham said. "Takeaways and turnovers have hurt us.

"We turned the ball over too much. I think we turned the ball over like five times just on bad decisions, so we have to eliminate those things."

One area that Graham has been pleased with is the special teams, which he said have been far better than he could have imagined this early in the season.

The one exception is place-kicker Kevin Harper, who has missed three field goals and an extra point over the first two games, but Graham said Harper is just one of many players who needs some work on consistency.

"One of the bright spots in the first two weeks to me has been how well our guys have played as a unit on special teams," Graham said.

"Our kicks have been bad, we've just missed field goals, but Kevin Harper is a guy I think has as much ability as any kicker I've been around, so we've just got to iron that out.

"But our kickoff unit has been stellar, our punt-block unit has been great, our punt unit, too, though we haven't punted very much.

"So there are a lot of positives there."

NOTES -- Freshman EJuan Price was elevated to the starter at "panther" linebacker. Graham said Price is just too good of a player not to play the maximum number of snaps available. In order to make that happen, senior Brandon Lindsey moved to defensive end and is the starter, and Aaron Donald moved from end to backup nose tackle. ...Graham said that Sunseri is still the starting quarterback and will start against Iowa. But he also said that there could be a little bit of a "package" installed for backup Trey Anderson, who played the fourth quarter against the Black Bears. ... Anthony Gonzalez's two-game suspension is over and he will be back in the mix, according to Graham. Gonzalez, who is a backup quarterback, will actually play the (H-back) position, and Graham said he's excited about that because he believes Gonzalez has the potential to be a special player. "He has done everything we've asked of him," Graham said. Gonzalez will share time with Drew Carswell and starter Hubie Graham. ...The Pitt-Notre Dame game Sept. 24 will be a noon kickoff at Heinz Field and will be televised on WTAE.


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


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