Pitt coach Todd Graham believes the Panthers are close to having a breakout offensive game, but he said it won't happen until the players begin to execute his system at a higher level and with fewer mistakes.
Graham surprisingly was candid at his weekly news conference when he talked about the struggles of the offense and what has held it back thus far.
And while Graham has not been happy with the execution of his system in general, he is especially hard on quarterback Tino Sunseri for holding the ball too long, which disrupts the timing of the offense.
"We're getting close but we still have too many penalties, too many misreads, [Tino Sunseri] holding the ball too long, just a lot of mental errors," Graham said. "People ask me, 'What do we need to do?' We need to execute our system and if we do that and not turn the ball over we're going to be successful.
"We're just not executing the offense. [Against Notre Dame], we had guys not run the right routes, we had more mental mistakes then we had in the games before so we have to eliminate those things and get better. We haven't been consistent, [Sunseri] hasn't been able to get the ball out on time to be able to execute what we need to do. We have at times, but nothing close to what we need"
Graham came to Pitt promising a brand of "high octane" offense but so far it hasn't produced anything close to those kinds of results.
Pitt is ranked No. 5 in the Big East Conference in scoring offense (27.2 ppg) and total offense (370.2 ypg) and No. 6 in passing offense (221.5 ypg). Against Notre Dame, the offense scored only 12 points -- three of them were courtesy of a short field after the defense recovered a fumble.
That is not much different than the production of the team from a year ago (26.3 ppg, 370 ypg) and it clearly is not good enough for Graham, who believes the Panthers would be averaging more than 40 points per game if the players were doing their jobs more consistently.
"It goes back to fundamentals. You spend all your time teaching somebody how to line up, teaching them what they are supposed to be reading and what the scheme is," Graham said. "But it is still about blocking, tackling, catching the football -- your eyes, feet and hands, that is how you play the game. We have to get better fundamentally.
"We have to be disciplined to execute our system, if we'll do that then we are going to be fine. We just can't come in every week and say we have 13 mental errors and expect to win. And I'm talking about very simple things, like stepping with the wrong foot.
"[Cory King] had a critical holding penalty on a play that would have resulted in a first down. We had an illegal procedure on a wideout who was running off the ball when he should have been keying on the ball -- silly things like that and we had more of them [against Notre Dame] than any of the other games."
Graham, who made it clear he doesn't question the effort of his team, said along with a lack of fundamentals there is still a tendency of too many players trying to operate outside the boundaries of the system.
He said in other systems, there is room for what he calls "ad-libbing." But in his system, every player must be in the right place to make it work because it is about timing and rhythm.
"Someone asked me today, 'What do you think is wrong with the offense?' " Graham said. "We are not running it. That is what is wrong with it, so as soon as we start running it [it will produce]. The main thing is being disciplined enough to do what they are coached to do.
"Our offense is very technical and very specific about what you are supposed to do. If the route calls to release outside, you have to release outside. It is not optional and we get a lot of that ... so what happens is players with all the right intentions operate outside of the system."
Graham pointed to specific plays where players didn't do the right thing, went the wrong way, took the wrong step -- and he said individually it may only be one or two plays, but when you add them up it could be as many as 17-20 plays where the offense didn't have a chance to work.
Last week -- after the Panthers blew a 21-point lead and lost to Iowa -- Graham said that the coaches simplified a lot of things with the defense to make it easier for the players to grasp some of the coverages, and clearly that worked as they played their best defensive game against the Irish.
He was asked if he could simplify the offense any and he said that the offense has already been simplified so much it barely resembles the offense he ran when he was at Tulsa.
"I don't think we can [simplify the offense]," Graham said. "It is about as simple as can be. It is actually so simple it is hard to watch for me, I can tell you. We have to stretch the field horizontally and stretch the field vertically. We're not getting the opportunities to stretch the field vertically like we need to.
"But I think it is just time, and I tell the kids every day, we have to eliminate the mental errors and we are really close to breaking through."
Although Graham has said continually that Sunseri is not getting the ball out of his hands quickly enough, he is not in jeopardy of losing his job.
Part of that, however, is that there might not be a viable alternative at this point since backup Trey Anderson is a freshman and lacks experience.
"Tino gives us the best opportunity to win a championship," Graham said. "With every person it is a process and sometimes it happens faster than others. I like Trey, he has a different skill set but he has also just walked in here in August so he is learning and I am glad he is here.
"Trey will play but our starting quarterback is Tino -- he has to get things corrected and he has to get it done. He has the most experience."
Paul Zeise: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1720.