MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Without a flicker of hesitation, Bruce Irvin summed up the key to slowing Pitt's offense tonight in the 104th Backyard Brawl: "Get to Tino Sunseri and hassle him as much as we can."
Pitt's quarterback has been the lifeblood of the Panthers offense since star running back Ray Graham sustained a season-ending knee injury.
Statistically, Sunseri is not in the Big East Conference elite when it comes to passing average or efficiency. Yet, West Virginia's game plan will hinge on dominating the line, getting to Sunseri and rendering him ineffective.
"I think Sunseri is one of a kind. He's just different. His whole style," said Irvin, the Mountaineers pass-rush specialist at defensive end. "He's not really a runner, but he gets you one of them pump fakes and, all of a sudden, turns into a runner. You've got to contain him and get after him."
Statistically, Pitt is vulnerable in third-down situations, converting 36 percent, but the Panthers have been incredibly efficient in the red zone, converting 32 of 35 chances.
The offensive line has allowed 43 sacks this season, and the 4.3 per game average is the worst in the country. The unit has not been consistent and has had to deal with multiple injuries. What does game film reveal there?
?"You know it's hard to really tell. You watch on film, see they've moved a lot of guys around on the front line. I would assume that may be why," said defensive tackle Julian Miller. "But it's hard to tell on film. You see Sunseri on film making plays, avoiding sacks. Last year, he was able to get out of the pocket and run on us."
Since Graham's injury, Zach Brown has filled the vacancy at running back, and Pitt still ranks among the top-three rushing offenses in the league with 158.1 yards a game.
That is an area where West Virginia's defense has not been dominant -- allowing an almost league-worst 135.9 yards a game. Rutgers has allowed 140.
"The blocking scheme is the key to what they get up front," Miller said. "They're still an explosive team, still a team that can beat you on the ground. But I think it's their quarterback who's definitely kept this offense together with the loss of Ray Graham. He's helped the team step up."
That is exactly right, said coach Dana Holgorsen, who noted that game film shows Sunseri has elevated his game since Graham went down. Pitt is 2-1 since Graham's injury.
"You do not replace Ray Graham. He is one of the better backs in the country. He is fantastic. It has elevated Tino?'s game since Ray has been out," Holgorsen said. "Tino has been the leader of the offense. He is a coach's kid and has elevated his game. You just don't replace Ray Graham."
It's subtle, but there.
"They often rely more on Tino to make plays with his legs than his arm," Irvin said. "We've just got to contain him and keep him controlled basically. We can't let him get out of the pocket and scramble.
"He got us last year on two or three runs. We've got to contain him ... we take him out of the game we'll be alright."
Sunseri rushed for a team-high 38 yards against West Virginia last season.
"Last year when we played against him, we made him look like a good runner," said linebacker Najee Goode. "He did run the ball. This year, just watching him play, we can tell he's consistent as far as running the football and throwing the football."
Sunseri is averaging 203.7 passing yards a game this season, but his efficiency is not stellar: He has completed 191 of 300 attempts with eight interceptions. He rushed for 64 yards against Cincinnati and 31 against Louisville in his previous two starts.
NOTE -- Louisville plays at South Florida at 11 a.m. today, which means the Big East title picture should be clearer by kickoff.
Jenn Menendez: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1959.