Dallas Colleges: Tino Sunseri
SMU beat Pitt 28-6 in the BBVA Compass Bowl on Saturday. Here is an instant analysis.
How the game was won: Pitt looked uninspired from the outset, and was totally outplayed in every aspect of the game. After SMU jumped out to a 21-0 first-quarter lead, you had to figure the game was just about over because the Panthers' anemic offense is simply not equipped to come from behind. The Pitt offensive line struggled once again, particularly left tackle Greg Gaskins, and so did quarterback Tino Sunseri -- who had two turnovers. Though Pitt was able to get pressure on SMU quarterback J.J. McDermott, he was able to avoid major sacks and find holes in the man-to-man defense to find wide open receivers.
Turning point: First quarter. This is all you need to know about how the first quarter went. Total yards: SMU 159, Pitt minus-5; First downs: SMU 7, Pitt 0; Time of possession: SMU 10:56, Pitt 3:49.
Stat of the game: 7. Total rushing yards for Pitt in the game.
Player of the game: SMU DE Margus Hunt. Pitt has now given up over 60 sacks on the season after the Mustangs got seven in the game. Hunt had four as he simply overpowered Gaskins all game long.
Second guessing: Pitt was terrible inside the SMU 25 today. In four opportunities, the Panthers came away with two field goals, a missed field goal and an interception. The interception was a fluke, as it bounced off Isaac Bennett's hands, then off a helmet and into the arms of Stephon Sanders. On several of the other possessions, Sunseri took sacks at the worst possible time. Sums up the story of the season. Pitt also had two opportunities on special teams taken away -- one was a recovered onside kick negated by an inadvertent whistle; another was a fake punt for a first down negated because of a false start. SMU also blocked one Pitt punt.
Well wishes: SMU running back Jared Williams broke his left leg on a scary hit with Pitt safety Andrew Taglianetti. Williams was carted off the field on a stretcher with an air cast on his leg, and Taglianetti was visibly distraught over the hit.
What Pitt learned: There is plenty of work for new coach Paul Chryst to do. As has been the case in 2011, quarterback and offensive line play are two of the biggest issues that have to be fixed. Good thing Chryst and incoming offensive coordinator Bob Bostad have the experience needed to make these two areas better. Pitt is going to be a more traditional offense in the future, and to be able to do that, the offensive line has got to be better. One thing has to be said about the coaching in this game -- the Panthers only had five full-time coaches on the sideline, and interim coach Keith Patterson was put in an extremely difficult position to lead this team.
What SMU learned: When the Mustangs are able to hold onto the football and make plays in the pass game, they win. SMU went into the game with the worst turnover margin in the nation (minus-17) but was plus-2 in this game. McDermott hit Darius Johnson for a 50-yard touchdown early in the game, and was able to pick apart a Pitt defense that at times had linebackers on the Mustangs' fastest receivers. Johnson ended up with seven catches for 121 yards -- and he returns next season along with injured running back Zach Line, Hunt and many other standouts on offense and defense.
1. Focus. The same question has to be asked again this year heading into the BBVA Compass Bowl: What will be the motivation for the Panthers, who are playing in this game for the second straight season under an interim head coach? There is no doubt these players and this program were rocked hard by the way former coach Todd Graham left. They must put those negative emotions behind them and play for themselves and each other. This is a team that has been maddeningly inconsistent, which led to a disappointing season. Can they pull it together one final time to win their third straight bowl game?
2. Run. Pitt has experienced the most success this season when running the ball. That task got more difficult when Ray Graham was lost for the season. It will be even harder now that backup Zach Brown is questionable for the game with a bruised sternum. True freshman Isaac Bennett and Corey Davis will be relied upon to shoulder the load, so the game doesn't rest on the arm of quarterback Tino Sunseri.
3. Get after J.J. McDermott. Pitt has been terrific with its pass rush all season, tied for fourth nationally in sacks with an average of 3.25 per game. The Panthers have 39 total sacks on the season. The Mustangs have given up 27 sacks on the year, so there should be plenty of opportunity for Aaron Donald and Brandon Lindsey to get after McDermott. That obviously is a huge key if the Panthers want to disrupt their passing game -- the strength of the team.
1. Limit the mistakes. SMU ranks last in the nation in turnover margin (minus-17) and has at least one interception in 11 of its 12 games this season. Only East Carolina has thrown more interceptions than SMU’s 19 in 2011, according to ESPN Stats & Information. On the bright side, Pitt only has eight interceptions this year. On the down side, Pitt did force six turnovers the last time out against Syracuse.
2. Make Sunseri win it. SMU has some pretty talented players up front. Defensive end Taylor Thompson, who has seven sacks and six forced fumbles on the season, is going to need a big game to slow down the Pitt running attack and to take Sunseri down. Ja'Gared Davis is also an important player for the Mustangs on defense -- he has 4.5 sacks and 11 tackles for loss. Taylor Reed is a tackling machine and will be key to slowing down the Pitt run.
3. Pass game must get going. There is no escaping this -- SMU has to pass the ball in order to win. The Mustangs went 2-4 in their last six games largely for this reason: Scoring an average of 17.7 points during the stretch, SMU averaged just 223.7 yards through the air and threw six touchdowns and 11 interceptions. The Panthers have been much better on pass defense in the second half of the season but will be challenged by Cole Beasley and Darius Johnson -- each has over 900 yards receiving and the duo has combined for nine of the team's 16 touchdowns this season. If SMU can protect McDermott and connect on big pass plays early to take a quick lead, Pitt could find itself in serious trouble. The Panthers are not equipped to play from behind.
The Panthers will try to give the Big East a 4-1 bowl record for the season.
WHO TO WATCH: Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri. It is hard to imagine any quarterback in the country taking as much criticism, and as many shots as he has this season. He was sacked more than 50 times, and former coach Todd Graham essentially blamed him for not making his "high-octane" offense work. Through it all, Sunseri took the high road, kept his head up and kept playing. Say what you will about his football season -- he deserves credit for taking the hits while trying to remain a leader for this football team. Interim coach Keith Patterson said this week tha the offense would slow down a bit to emphasize what Sunseri does best. That would be running the football. Zach Brown (bruised sternum) is most likely out, so the load will fall once again to freshman Isaac Bennett.
WHAT TO WATCH: Pittsburgh defense against SMU offense. The Mustangs have the potential to put up points in a hurry, but the key is being able to limit the pass game. More emphasis will be placed on that with leading rusher Zach Line out for this game. This is really all you need to know about how SMU does when it scores: The Mustangs are 7-0 this season when scoring first and 7-0 when scoring 21-plus points. Slowing down receiver Darius Johnson will be the biggest key. Johnson has five 100-yard games this season, and three games with 10 or more catches.
WHY TO WATCH: This could have been a future Big East game, but alas, Pitt is headed to the ACC when SMU joins up with the Big East. Either way, June Jones has done a remarkable job in turning around the Mustangs, though they probably fell a little short of expectations this season. SMU is playing in its third straight bowl game -- tying a school record. When his offenses are on, they are fun to watch.
PREDICTION: Pitt 28, SMU 17. From my predictions post a few weeks ago: Pitt has to do what has worked best this season -- establish the run and let Sunseri manage the game. The defense has been much improved in the second half of the season, and SMU has struggled to put up points of late. The Mustangs also will be without leading rusher Line, who played a big role in the offense. If the Panthers can continue to get after the quarterback and play well in the secondary, they should be able to win this game.
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