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Saturday, October 16, 2010
Pitt slaps Syracuse with dose of reality

By Brian Bennett

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- For Pittsburgh, thankfully, it's in with the new. For Syracuse, depressingly, it was on with the old.

Both teams came into Saturday's game in unexpected places. The Panthers, after being picked to win the Big East almost unanimously, were 2-3 and teetering on the brink of collapse. The Orange stood at a surprising 4-1 and had the Carrier Dome jumping at kickoff in anticipation of a breakthrough win.

Tino Sunseri
Pittsburgh quarterback Tino Sunseri completed 17 of 24 passes for 266 yards and four touchdowns Saturday against Syracuse.
Before halftime even arrived, roles had reverted back to normal. Pitt blasted Syracuse 45-14 in a game all too familiar to long-suffering Orange fans. Many of the 40,168 hopeful headed for the exits midway through the third quarter. By the final 10 minutes, the place looked like a ghost town from the Greg Robinson days.

It was the kind of lopsided result you might have expected before the season, but not after the way the Panthers bumbled through the nonconference portion of their schedule. They saved their most complete performance for the start of Big East play after coach Dave Wannstedt preached all week about beginning a new season.

"We knew it was a tale of two seasons all along," quarterback Tino Sunseri said. "We had a tough out-of-conference schedule, but we still have all of our goals ahead of us. The Big East championship is ahead of us. We wanted to come out fast today and let the Big East know that we can play."

Sunseri looked like one of the team's weak links earlier in the year, never more than when he struggled so badly against Miami that many fans called for backup Pat Bostick. But the sophomore has progressed since then, and on Saturday the game plan revolved around him.

Wannstedt said when he arrived in the team hotel on Friday night, he flipped on the TV and saw Syracuse coach Doug Marrone's show. Marrone, he said, "must have said the word 'physical' 10 times during the course of the show." Wannstedt also saw how the Orange brought pressure against South Florida last week, daring Bulls quarterback B.J. Daniels to burn them with big plays.

Daniels couldn't. But Sunseri could. He completed 17 of 24 passes for 266 yards and four touchdowns. Pitt's first play from scrimmage was a short pass that Devin Street took 79 yards for a touchdown. Sunseri also made third-down touchdown throws to Ray Graham and Mike Shanahan as he stood in against the blitz.

"That was probably his most complete game," Wannstedt said. "He has showed little spurts, signs of getting better. But today I thought from start to finish, he maintained a consistency he had to have."

Pitt's improvement has coincided with its shuffling of the offensive line, moving Lucas Nix inside, Jordan Gibbs to tackle and replacing Greg Gaskins. Dion Lewis (15 carries for 80 yards) and Ray Graham (11 for 54) both found running room against a good Syracuse run defense. But neither went off, and Jon Baldwin finished with only one catch, yet the Panthers scored 45 points.

"Everybody thinks it's just Ray, Dion and JB," Graham said. "But Tino spread it out, and that's what is great."

The defense also played its best game, holding star back Delone Carter to just 38 yards before Syracuse was forced to throw nonstop in catch-up mode. The Panthers created four turnovers, including cornerback Ricky Gary's 80-yard pick-six, while moving pieces around. Shane Gordon got his first start at strongside linebacker, Dom DeCicco went back to safety and Tristan Roberts returned to start at the weakside linebacker spot.

Wannstedt was hesitant to use the "new season" theme, lest his team forget its mistakes of the past. But it was hard not to think that this looked like a different Pitt, one that could compete with West Virginia for the Big East title if it maintains this level of execution.

"We should be unstoppable," defensive end Jabaal Sheard said. "We have great athletes and tremendous talent everywhere on the field. If we play like we did today, with everybody stepping up to make big plays, we'll be all right."

If Pitt looked renewed, Syracuse appeared to relapse.

The Orange benefited from a soft early schedule, and now they face consecutive road games at West Virginia and Cincinnati that could turn that 4-1 start to a 4-4 crossroads. They don't have another home game until November, and by then the excitement they built up may have significantly eroded.

"What I feel bad about is for the people who came out to watch the game," Marrone said. "Their expectations were high, and so were ours. My expectations were high for these players to get over the this hump."

Not quite yet. What's old is new again, and vice versa.