The Pittsburgh Panthers are terrible. Maybe that is a bit harsh, but they play in arguably the worst football conference in college football and cannot win a game against a conference team. Walking down the concourse leaving Heinz Field last night, I heard fans complaining, "The refs were awful." While that may have been true, the Panthers easily could have beaten the Cincinnati Bearcats despite the quality of the referees. They controlled their own destiny in the Big East but fell 26-23 after leading most of the game.
Two of the most glaring problems with Pitt's inability to win games are quarterback play and kick returning. In a previous blog, I said that Tino Sunseri needed to step up, and I actually gave him the benefit of the doubt that he could do just that. He has done anything but that. While Sunseri threw for 218 yards against the Bearcats, he cost the team the game by throwing an interception and coughing up the ball once. And when the Panthers needed him to step up several times in the fourth quarter to lead the team down the field and score, he just couldn't do it. Sunseri has no long ball threat. He takes one element completely out of the game. In football, there are going to be times when a quarterback needs to execute a game-winning drive. Sunseri is absolutely not the guy to make that happen.
Another major issue that Pitt needs to address is kick returning. More than once against Cincy, Panther kick returners dropped the ball. Football is a fast game, and when a returner takes 2 seconds to pick up a ball they failed to catch, the opposing team has already made it down the field and is ready to tackle. People often underestimate the importance of solid special teams. Returns control field position. Pitt could have used a few drives that started beyond the 25-yard line, especially because their offense seemed to struggle when it truly mattered.
In addition, football is a game that can change in a heartbeat when a key player gets injured. Panther fans held their breath all week, waiting to see how their team would respond to the loss of running back, Ray Graham. They also knew that Pitt would be up against the second best running defense in the nation, Cincinnati. As a team, the Panthers did put up 179 yards, but that is what Ray Graham typically puts up individually. Zach Brown is no Ray Graham, but he did finish the game with 11 carries for 54 yards.
Unfortunately for the Panthers, their growl was nearly silenced to a meager meow in comparison to the Bearcat roar that reverberated through Heinz Field following a missed Pitt field goal in the final seconds of the game.
Go back to the drawing board for next year, Coach.