Panthers see margin for error disappearing
Connecticut's Robbie Frey recovers a Pitt fumble in front of Buddy Jackson in the second half of Thursday in East Hartford, Conn. The recovery set up a Connecticut touchdown.
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EAST HARTFORD, Conn. -- Pitt lost more than a football game at Rentschler Field on Thursday night.
The Panthers also lost their margin for error in the Big East Conference race when they dropped an error-filled contest to Connecticut, 30-28, before a national television audience.
"We preach Big East, Big East, Big East championship," Pitt running back Ray Graham said. "It is very disappointing to come here and lose this game, it makes things a lot harder than it should be."
Had the Panthers won, they'd be sitting at 4-0 in the Big East standings right now with three games to play and a lead of at least two games over every other team in the conference.
Instead, their league record is 3-1 and one more loss will take control of the Big East race out of their hands and tie-breaking rules would come into play. If that happens there is no guarantee they would get the conference's automatic BCS bid.
Pitt is 5-4 overall, and there are legitimate questions about whether they are worthy of a BCS Bowl, especially with losses to mediocre teams Connecticut and Notre Dame.
Like the Notre Dame defeat, the loss to the Huskies can be pinned on the Panthers' poor play. Pitt was hurt by lack of execution on offense, a comedy of errors on special teams and other miscues.
The Panthers defensive line -- usually an asset -- was dominated by Connecticut's offensive line. And Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri was off the mark for most of the night.
"We're a young team and we are just going to keep learning each and every week," Sunseri said. "But it ultimately comes down to me just understanding and protecting the ball. I am in charge of the offense and I need to take control, and I made too many mistakes tonight and I need to go back, look at it and make the corrections."
Sunseri threw two interceptions -- both badly thrown balls -- and fumbled an exchange with Graham. He missed receiver Mike Shanahan at least three times when he was open for big gains.
But the one sequence spoke volumes about the Panthers' immaturity.
Trailing 10-7 in the second quarter, the Panthers advanced to the Connecticut 42 where they faced a fourth-and-1 and Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt opted to go for it.
The Panthers struggled to get to the line of scrimmage and get set as Sunseri tried to take the snap before the huddle clock expired. Center Alex Karabin didn't snap the ball and a number of Panthers jumped offside.
The Panthers -- who had timeouts available but chose not to use one -- were penalized five yards for illegal procedure and were forced to punt.
That sequence was bizarre enough, the explanation -- players were too busy trash talking to get into their stances -- may be near the top of reasons for poor execution.
"After the play there was some talking back-and-forth between the players [on both teams] and stuff," Sunseri said. "And we just talked a little bit too much and we didn't get back into the huddle and didn't get up to the line. And in our offense, you can tell there are a lot of shifts and motions and we like to try and confuse the defense by putting people on the perimeter, and we broke the huddle with not enough time to be able do that stuff.
"We have a call to bring those [perimeter] guys in and I relayed the call out to the receivers ... to bring those guys in but I guess I didn't speak loud enough to the center and ultimately that is my responsibility to make sure he gets that call."
The Panthers still control their destiny in the Big East race. They can claim the championship by winning their final three games -- against South Florida, West Virginia and Cincinnati.
NOTES -- One injury note from the Connecticut game -- defensive end Greg Romeus, who made his first start since back surgery early this year, twisted his knee and couldn't finish the game. ... Pitt senior Dan Hutchins has been named one of 10 semifinalists for the Ray Guy Award, annually presented to the nation's top collegiate punter.
First Published November 13, 2010 1:23 am