Sunseri can drive at any speed

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Pitt didn't just win a big game Thursday night. It found a high-octane, speed-speed-speed, explosive-power offense. More accurately, it found a quarterback.

I admit, I didn't see it coming.

I showed up at Heinz Field prepared to write Pitt off for the season if it lost to No. 16 South Florida. That would have been three losses in a row, a difficult challenge for any team to overcome. It would have been an 0-1 start in the Big East Conference with a home defeat. It would have been an incredibly disappointing beginning to the Todd Graham era.

But here's the thing:

The offense didn't let Pitt lose.

Running back Ray Graham didn't let Pitt lose.

Most significantly, quarterback Tino Sunseri didn't let Pitt lose.

Suddenly, after this 44-17 "old-fashioned tail-whipping" -- South Florida coach Skip Holtz's words -- I find myself looking forward to Pitt's game next weekend at Rutgers and to the six games that will follow. The losses to Iowa and Notre Dame still are on Pitt's record. They aren't going away. But, somehow, it seems a lot easier this morning to blame those defeats on a tougher-than-expected adjustment to a new coach's offense. Beyond that, it's a lot more fun to focus on that 1-0 record in the Big East, a weak league that is there for Pitt's taking.

"They showed the things I've been talking about," Todd Graham said of his men as midnight approached. "I've said all along we've got a good football team. We made great strides tonight. We played a complete football game."

The coach gets no argument here. This was a team win, to be sure. Not a lot of people saw it -- the announced attendance of 40,025 seemed high -- but that doesn't mean it wasn't impressive.

The Pitt defense, so bad just 12 days earlier at Iowa when it blew a 27-10 lead in the fourth quarter, shut out South Florida in the second half. The special teams made sure South Florida had poor field position all night. Kicker Kevin Harper was perfect on field-goal tries from 47, 39 and 46 yards. And, of course, Ray Graham was terrific. He did it as a runner with 26 carries for 226 yards and two touchdowns. He did it as a receiver with four catches for 42 yards. He was the best player on the Heinz Field lawn, hardly a surprise considering he came in averaging nearly 160 all-purpose yards per game.

But this night belonged to Sunseri.

"He was the commander," Todd Graham said. "I thought he took charge of the team tonight."

Sunseri had a tough week, a tough month, actually. Graham -- that would be Todd -- was tough on him for failing to run his offense efficiently. He was so tough on him early in the week after Pitt managed just 12 points and 268 yards in a 15-12 home loss Saturday to Notre Dame that he felt the need to publicly pull back, saying we should go easy on his quarterback and blame him and his coaches for the offense's struggles.

Sunseri said the criticism -- internally and externally -- didn't bother him. He said his father, Sal, a former Pitt All-American linebacker and current Alabama assistant coach, is his toughest critic. "Believe me, I wasn't getting anything sugar-coated at home."

Sunseri shrugged it all off. He said his teammates helped. "I went into that locker room every day and those guys always believed in me."

Certainly, Sunseri looked much more comfortable running Graham's offense. He was more decisive. He completed his first seven passes. He ran for big gains. He helped Pitt convert nine of 15 third-down opportunities. He led the Panthers to points on six of their first seven possessions, the exception coming when the offense botched a gadget play and lost a fumble early in the game, Pitt's only turnover.

Sunseri was at his best on the sixth scoring drive, which gave Pitt a 34-17 lead with 4:55 left in the third quarter. He threw a rope to wide receiver Cameron Saddler on the right sideline for a 20-yard gain on third-and-9. He then showed good touch on a swing pass to Ray Graham for a 14-yard gain on third-and-13.

"This is the first time I have ever run this kind of offense in my life," Sunseri said. "I was always under center. I was always a drop-back guy ...

"I knew what I needed to do and I felt like I was getting better each and every week."

Sunseri finished 22 of 33 for 216 yards and one touchdown, a 12-yard throw to H-back Hubie Graham. He also ran 12 times for 35 yards and a touchdown.

No, Sunseri wasn't Dan Marino. But he showed me something. He showed me he's awfully strong mentally.

Sunseri did something else, too.

He made sure I will tune in to see what he and Graham's high-octane, speed-speed-speed, explosive-power offense do against Rutgers.

I never imagined that would be must-see television.


Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com . Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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