Cook: Freshman Shell steps into featured role

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If the first half of the college football season showed us anything, it's that Pitt has many needs going forward. It needs a better quarterback, a better offensive line, a better defense and a better kicking game. What Pitt doesn't need is just as clear. It is just fine at the running back position. It should be just fine as long as Rushel Shell stays in school.

Pitt remains a tough ticket sell, as evidenced again Saturday when 42,432 came to Heinz Field on a gorgeous day for the game against No. 18 and unbeaten Louisville. That's unfortunate because Shell is worth the price of admission. He was Pitt's best player in its 45-35 loss.

No one will say it officially, but Saturday should be remembered as the day Shell jumped over senior Ray Graham to become Pitt's featured running back. He had 18 carries for 96 yards and a touchdown and easily would have gone over 100 if Pitt hadn't fallen behind by 17 points with four minutes left in the third quarter. Graham, whom Shell described as "a big brother to me," started the game but had only six carries for 20 yards.

Shell, just a freshman, has too much talent not to be the man.

This is his time.

I can't wait to see what he does Saturday at Buffalo.

There's no question Shell has the physical ability. That was clear last season when he became the most prolific back in Pennsylvania schoolboy history at Hopewell High School. It was just as evident when he ran for 157 yards on 23 carries in Pitt's win against Virginia Tech Sept. 15. He bulled through tacklers that day, punishing them for every hit. He did the same thing against Louisville.

It's nice to think Shell's maturity finally is catching up to that talent. He missed the opening game against Youngstown State by doing something stupid to get suspended. Pitt was so dominated that night in a 31-17 loss that it wouldn't have won even with Shell, but it would have beaten Syracuse Oct. 5 if Shell had been able to get more than one carry for 2 yards. The reason given for his little playing time was back spasms, which forced him to miss a couple of days of practice early in the week of the game.

"I lost a lot of mental reps," Shell said. "I was slacking mentally. I don't think I should have played in that game. I could have gotten someone hurt."

The 14-13 loss in Syracuse should have convinced Shell he has to work harder at his craft, not just on the field but in the film room. He said Saturday that the mental part of his game is coming, especially in terms of pass-blocking and picking up blitzes. "I feel like it was really clicking today."

Sadly for Pitt, Shell was about the only player clicking. The loss left it with a 2-4 record, including 0-3 in the Big East Conference. It is leaving the league after this season for the Atlantic Coast Conference with a whimper, not a bang.

Pitt's offensive line struggled again to protect quarterback Tino Sunseri, who was sacked five times for the second consecutive game. The defense couldn't keep Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater from completing passes of 24, 31, 27, 75, 29 and 35 yards. The 75-yarder to wide receiver DeVante Parker on the first play of the second half gave Louisville a 24-21 lead. Cornerback K'Waun Williams was beaten for the touchdown and had a rough game.

"I saw a lot of guys deflated after that play," Pitt wide receiver Devin Street said.

Pitt lost the special-teams battle despite getting a blocked punt and subsequent recovery for a touchdown by linebacker Todd Thomas in the second quarter. Pitt punter Matt Yoklic had one punt tipped and watched it go 14 yards and couldn't handle a low snap on another kick in the third quarter. Louisville turned each mistake into a touchdown.

Then, there were a couple of curious decisions by Pitt coach Paul Chryst.

Pitt went for it on fourth-and-8 from the Louisville 22 with 4:59 left instead of trying a 39-yard field goal by Kevin Harper that could have cut Louisville's lead to 38-31. Sunseri's pass went incomplete.

Late in the first half, Pitt also went for it on fourth-and-1 at the Louisville 42 rather than punt and settle for a 21-14 lead at halftime. Shell was thrown for a 1-yard loss, and Louisville quickly turned the short field into a field goal on the final play of the half to make it 21-17.

"The hole got a little bit congested," Shell said. "I tried to step back and find a different hole, but they came up and got me."

It's hard to blame Chryst too much for giving the ball to Shell in that situation. That was one of the few times the Louisville defense stopped the kid.

The comparisons between Shell and another former Hopewell/Pitt star -- Tony Dorsett -- started the instant Shell said he was going to Pitt. There figures to be more now that Shell has established himself in the Pitt offense. Forget that Dorsett was much quicker and more elusive and that Shell is more ferocious and a harder runner. The comparisons aren't fair to Dorsett or to Shell.

Anyway, Shell doesn't have to be the next Tony Dorsett. The first Rushel Shell should be plenty good enough.

roncook

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


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