NCF Nation: Lucas Nix

There has not been much in the way of describing what Pitt center Ryan Turnley endured last season.

Saying he fought through nagging foot injuries is a little like saying Secretariat was a good lil' horse.

Understatement!

[+] EnlargeRyan Turnley
AP Photo/Tomasso DeRosaIt's safe to say that no one at Pitt will ever question the toughness of Ryan Turnley.
Turnley says he never once practiced last season, yet he started all 13 games for the Panthers, and cannot recall missing one snap. He was an occasional bright spot on an otherwise dreary line, but the truth is, not many people can fight through this type of pain.

Torn plantar fascia in both feet left him on crutches half the week, in a walking boot for a few more days, then gingerly participating in walk throughs with the hope he could suit up on Saturdays.

There were days he thought there was no way he could get himself onto the field. Yet he endured with the help of pain medication and an unbending will to push through. Why did he keep going?

"I really can't answer that question," Turnley said in a recent phone interview. "It really worked out. A lot of times, we didn’t think it would work out, or didn’t think I’d be able to play on Saturday. I was very lucky I could play in all the games."

So was Pitt. The Panthers were decimated up front because of injuries to several key players, including Lucas Nix, Matt Rotheram and Chris Jacobson. They had no backup center. Even if Turnley wanted to sit out a week, there was no real way he could because the Panthers simply didn't have anybody to replace him.

"I love playing," he said. "During the game, I didn’t even think about it, I was having fun playing ball. After the game, it was another story."

Turnley initially got hurt against Utah. He says the injury was a shock to the system, particularly because he never really had one as serious during his career. The following week against UConn, he hurt his other foot.

"The thing about the one in the UConn game was that it was on a screen," Turnley recalled. "I was pulling out to the left. I went to cut a linebacker, and it felt like the sole of my shoe ripped out, that’s the sound it made and the feeling I had. I got up on my feet, and I said, 'It happened again. I can’t believe it.' We completed the pass, and we ran a hurry-up no huddle, so I limped my way over to the line and snapped the ball. I didn’t have time to think about it. I went to the sideline, then to the locker room for pain medicine, and came back."

That was the story of his season. But now that another fall practice is about to roll around, Turnley feels better than he has in a long time. He allowed his feet to rest after the bowl game, and they are completely healed. He also got to participate during spring practice and begin practicing in the new offense coach Paul Chryst brought with him from Wisconsin.

The new philosophy will be run-heavy, something that should benefit what was a shaky offensive line last year. What also helps is having Jacobson and Turnley back, two seniors with starting experience. For his part, Turnley named the offensive recipient of the Ed Conway Award, given each year to the most improved players of spring drills.

He also is on the preseason watch list for the Rimington Award, given annually to the top center in college football.

What he is looking forward to the most when spring drills begin is getting more time to perfect what Chryst wants the team to do. All while feeling completely healthy.

"You can study for 10 hours a day, but it’s all about execution and that takes a lot of practice and a lot of work," Turnley said. "Spring ball helped with that -- we got a lot better from beginning to the end. We’re just excited to go out at camp and start working again."
Pittsburgh and Syracuse will play for the same goal Saturday in Pittsburgh -- bowl eligibility.

It is safe to say nobody expected either team to be in this position. The Panthers were picked to finish No. 2 in the Big East when the season began. Syracuse was 5-2 in the middle of October. Yet neither team has gotten particularly strong play from its offense down the stretch, so both face a must-win just to get to .500 and keep their seasons alive.

"Obviously we didn't want to be in the position where we're fighting to be in a bowl game, but it would be big for us to get to one," Pittsburgh guard Lucas Nix said. "Not only that, it's Senior Day, so we all want to perform well."

[+] EnlargeDoug Marrone
Jamie Rhodes/US PresswireCoach Doug Marrone and Syracuse have lost four straight games since beating West Virginia.
Syracuse coach Doug Marrone also has emphasized to his team the meaning and importance of playing for the senior class, a group that worked so hard to help the Orange rebuild their program. He said this week that playing for a bowl game has not been motivation enough, since the Orange have dropped four straight with bowl eligibility on the line.

So he has tried a different tactic.

"He's been harping on doing it for the seniors, playing for those guys next to you, those guys who poured all their blood, sweat and tears into the program the last four years," Syracuse tackle Justin Pugh said.

Since Syracuse's big win against West Virginia, Marrone has said his players are worried about making mistakes and that has impacted the way they have played.

"After the big win against West Virginia, there was added pressure," Pugh said. "It's tough to go out there when you're thinking about not messing up. Coach has really emphasized to us to try to play loose and with a lot of enthusiasm, to play our game. If we do our job, everything should end up OK. Hopefully everyone takes that mindset and all 11 guys have it this week."

Scoring more would certainly help. During this four-game losing streak, Syracuse is averaging 15 points a game. As it stands, the Orange rank No. 89 in the nation in total offense, and No. 79 in scoring offense. Pittsburgh has not lit up the scoreboard, either, ranking No. 83 in total offense and No. 75 in scoring offense.

Those numbers come as more of a surprise, because coach Todd Graham promised a high-octane offense when he got the job. But everybody on offense has been slow to adapt to the new hurry-up spread, from the offensive line, to quarterback Tino Sunseri, to his receivers. Remember, these are pro-style players being asked to run a system that is completely foreign to them.

[+] EnlargeTodd Graham
Charles LeClaire/US PresswirePittsburgh has not made a smooth transition to coach Todd Graham's spread offense.
A learning curve was to be expected. But what has come as a disappointment is that the players have not really grasped the concepts well after 11 games. There has been little to no improvement. Plus, the Panthers have had to deal with the loss of their best player, Ray Graham.

"It's been an experience trying to go through this season and coaching on the fly," Nix said. "All year, we kept saying, 'It's getting close it's getting close.' At points we thought we were there and getting over the hump, but it's just mental mistakes, people not fully buying into the system. I honestly think all these players have tried to buy in, it's just a matter of more time and repetitions."

Adversity has struck both teams. Whoever handles it best Saturday will be going bowling.

"Every season despite the records, there's always ups and downs and some type of adversity you have to deal with," Marrone said. "Has this been a tough year? Does it rank up there with some of the other ones? It has. I'm not going to deny that. Whatever the adversity you're faced with, you refocus everything on the field.

"When you have situations that occur that you can't control, whether it's injuries or suspensions, you need to move on and people need to pick up. The one lesson I always learned: no one ever feels sorry for you. No one's looking across that field saying, 'Gosh I feel bad this player's hurt or this player's out.' Everyone's focused on going out to win a game. Sometimes the greatest lessons in life you learn during this time. Sometimes true character is created, and how you deal with these situations and how you deal with adversity is going to help you later on in life."

Final thoughts: Pitt-West Virginia

November, 25, 2011
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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- We are approaching kickoff between Pitt and West Virginia. Here are a few final thoughts before the game starts:

Pitt might get a boost on the offensive line, which has struggled mightily this season. Right guard Lucas Nix is expected to play Friday night for the first time since injuring his knee against USF in September. He has missed five straight games, and Pitt has started three different players in his place. Nix was dressed and participated in pregame warmups.

A bunch of West Virginia records could be falling Friday. Among them:
  • Quarterback Geno Smith is 111 yards away from passing Marc Bulger for the most single-season passing yards in school history. Smith has 3,497 yards; Bulger had 3,607 in 1998.
  • Smith also is 291 yards shy of 7,000 for his career. He would become the fifth player in school history with 7,000 total yards of offense, joining Pat White, Bulger, Rasheed Marshall and Major Harris.
  • Receiver Stedman Bailey needs just 7 yards to break the single-season record for receiving yards, set by David Saunders in 1996.
  • Bailey also has an opportunity to match the school record for touchdown catches in a season. He currently has 10; the record is 12, held by Darius Reynaud (2007) and Chris Henry (2004).
  • Receiver Tavon Austin needs six receptions to break the single-season record of 77, set by Saunders in 1998.
  • West Virginia has won two straight in this series. Pitt leads overall 61-39-3. In West Virginia's last 15 wins in the series, the Mountaineers have scored 581 points -- an average of 38.7 per game.

Pittsburgh takes it nice and slow

November, 15, 2011
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See ya, high octane.

Welcome back, grind-it-out football.

If the Panthers' 21-14 win against Louisville this past weekend had a familiar look to it, that was not an accident. Coach Todd Graham has decided to slow down the offensive pace. No more rushing to snap the ball. No more rushing to get set. No more rushing players onto the field.

[+] EnlargeTodd Graham
Jamie Rhodes/US PresswireCoach Todd Graham helped get Pittsburgh back on track by changing the tempo of his offense.
Pitt was effective at going at a slower tempo against the Cardinals, racking up 200 yards on the ground. They had no penalties, and Tino Sunseri looked more comfortable. Plenty of misdirection plays worked, and the offensive line had perhaps its best performance in a long time. They are going to have to repeat that performance in their final two games against West Virginia and Syracuse to not only get back to a bowl game, but keep their Big East hopes alive.

Graham singled out his line in particular for its play against the Cardinals. The Panthers used their seventh different starting lineup, as guard Lucas Nix was still unavailable. Pitt went with the combination of Greg Gaskins at left tackle, Ryan Schlieper at left guard; Ryan Turnley at center; Cory King at right guard and Jordan Gibbs at right tackle. Turnley is the only player who has started all 10 games at the same position.

"I'm just really proud of them," Graham said. "Greg Gaskins just sticks out to me up front, him and Turnley. We've now had a few weeks with just the same group of guys and they really responded. I thought we run-blocked really well, came off the football. We were able to be balanced in what we were doing. It's just repetition and having the same guys in the lineup helped. It's just reps and those guys being disciplined."

Pitt lost its two best players on the offensive line in Nix (hurt against USF) and Chris Jacobson (out for the season). Guys like Gaskins, King and Schlieper only have a handful of starts and were thrown into the mix to plug holes. As a result of that and an inability to pick up the hurry-up, Pitt has given up 42 sacks this season.

The injuries on offense and all the young players have played a big role in why Graham is scaling back the attack.

But if he gets another performance like the one against Louisville, it will hardly matter.

"The nature of football -- you're going to have injuries," he said. "We're not going to make excuses and whine about that stuff. But what you have to have is guys that have been in backup roles or some of our guys who've been third team. They can't play as replacements. They have to go out there like they're 9 feet tall and compete like they're the best offensive linemen in the country. To get that confidence takes repetition. Having a knowledge of what you're doing allows you to play fast and aggressive. It's been a process, obviously been a challenge with the injuries, but [I'm] really proud of how they responded. It's not how you start, but how you finish."

Pitt still in Big East title hunt

November, 1, 2011
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Not much has gone right for Pitt this season. The high-octane offense has sputtered to a halt. They've blown two fourth-quarter leads. Ray Graham -- its best player -- is out for the season with a knee injury. The offensive line has been one of the worst in the Big East.

Yet the Panthers are 2-1 in league play and still have a chance to win a conference championship. A win over Cincinnati (6-1, 2-0) on Saturday in Pittsburgh would be yet another step along that journey.

Coach Todd Graham has emphasized throughout all the adversity his team has faced that the conference title is still within reach.

"I don’t know how in the world you cannot be ready for this week," Graham said at his weekly news conference. "We are playing Cincinnati and they are undefeated in the Big East. We have four games left and if we win all four of those games then we control our own destiny. I know how excited I am and I sense the same excitement from our players. We could stand up and talk about the number of injuries, but it doesn’t matter because we started this thing to win a championship and that is on the line Saturday.

"We have really focused on one at a time and this is what we call the second rock. It is an obstacle that is in front of us and a challenge is ahead of us. We can’t be up and down anymore. We have to be up the rest of the way through. I feel like this is when we play our best, when your back is up against the wall and nobody thinks you can do it. That is when your true character comes to the top and I think our guys are going to play their tails off.”

The offensive line should be a bit healthier this week with the expected return of Lucas Nix. Graham said their performance last week was the best of the season. Defensively, it has taken a while but it seems as though players are picking up the new 3-4 scheme. Aaron Donald has been unstoppable in the last several games, and now leads the Big East with seven sacks.

But the Panthers have been incredibly inconsistent all season, especially on offense. How does Tino Sunseri build off his performance last week against UConn, in which he threw for a career-high 419 yards? How does the offense do without Graham, who had over 1,000 yards of total offense this season? Will the offensive line -- even with Nix -- be able to handle the constant pressure the Bearcats bring? These are all major questions headed into Saturday.

If they have the answers, Pitt will find itself atop the Big East standings.

Notre Dame impact underclassmen

August, 10, 2011
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Notre Dame has an experienced team coming back in 2011, with 20 players who started at least seven games last season. But there are also plenty of opportunities for young players to make an impact, like Tommy Rees and Cierre Wood did last year.

Today, we'll take a look at a few underclassmen who could step up and become difference-makers this season. We'll define underclassmen as those who are in their first or second year of playing -- remember, Notre Dame doesn't officially do redshirts -- then talk about a few true freshmen who could make a splash. We'll limit these to three in each category and try to focus on those players who haven't seen a lot of action so far.

Sophomores who have played

[+] EnlargeBennett Jackson
Jim O'Connor/US PresswireBennett Jackson, recruited as a receiver by Notre Dame, will move to cornerback this fall.
1. Bennett Jackson, CB: Jackson was recruited as a receiver but did his best work in 2010 on special teams as both a returner and a tackler. He was moved to cornerback in the spring to help shore up a thin position. He'll see some playing time there, and if anything happens to Gary Gray or Robert Blanton, Jackson will instantly become vitally important.

2. Prince Shembo and Danny Spond, OLB: We're combining these two into one because both are expected to compete for the starting job at one of the outside linebacker positions. Both saw action last season as backups and showed promise at times. Shembo has excellent speed, while former high school quarterback Spond has adjusted well to defense.

3. Kona Schwenke, DE: The Hawaiian became a surprise contributor late in the season after Ian Williams' injury. He has put on a lot of weight since coming to campus and is now up to 6-foot-4, 285 pounds. He'll push for playing time in what is becoming a very deep position for the Irish.

Sophomores who haven't played

1. Lucas Nix, NG: Nix was a highly rated recruit who came to campus extremely overweight. He has shed more than 40 pounds and was listed at 326 to start fall practice. He still might not be in good enough shape to play every down, but if he can give about 20 quality snaps in the middle of that defensive line, he can provide a valuable run-stuffing presence.

2. Andrew Hendrix, QB: The offensive MVP of the spring game, Hendrix is in a four-way competition for the starting quarterback job. Or, more accurately, he's in a competition with true freshman Everett Golson to be the change-of-pace, running-threat quarterback in special packages. Either he or Golson will likely have an impact on the season at some point.

3. Christian Lombard and Tate Nichols, OT: Lombard and Nichols are big, talented tackle prospects Notre Dame had the luxury of grooming without playing last season. With Zack Martin and Taylor Dever returning as the starting tackles, Lombard and Nichols will begin the season as backups but will factor into the rotation. They're just an injury or a lackluster performance away from being very important.

True freshmen

1. Aaron Lynch, DE: The breakout star of the spring game, Lynch wowed everybody with his speed and instincts as a pass-rusher. He'll likely start out as more of a situational player, but if he continues to grow and play like he did in the spring, he'll force his way into more and more snaps.

2. DaVaris Daniels, WR: The Irish are looking for more playmakers at wide receiver to complement Michael Floyd and Theo Riddick, and the coaching staff is high on Daniels' potential. The 6-foot-1 freshman has the pedigree, as his father played 15 years in the NFL at defensive end. He'll have to learn quickly, though, as he did not arrive until the summer.

3. Ishaq Williams, OLB: Like Lynch, Williams went through spring practice to get an early acclimation to college. The highly rated recruit has more experienced players in front of him at outside linebacker, but he's a physical force at 6-5, 255 pounds. At the very least, he can be used on third downs as a pass-rush specialist.

Big East player rankings: OL

July, 15, 2011
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The team position rankings have wrapped up, so now it is time to tackle another bear of an assignment: player rankings. I am going to start with offensive line. I thought about breaking this off into centers, guards and tackles, but wanted to have 10 at each position. That would leave center lacking. So I am going with all offensive linemen.

[+] EnlargeMoe Petrus
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireMoe Petrus has garnered plenty of attention, making the preseason Lombardi, Outland and Rimington award watch lists.
1. Moe Petrus, center, Connecticut. The premier offensive lineman in the league has started every game he has played in headed into his senior season. That makes 39 for those scoring at home. Petrus is on three watch lists this preseason (Lombardi, Outland and Rimington) and he is the heart of a very solid Huskies offensive line.

2. Mike Ryan, tackle, Connecticut. The Huskies have a formidable duo with Petrus and Ryan returning. Ryan is the only player coming back this season who was a first-team All-Big East selection, and is on the watch list for the Lombardi Award. Ryan helped an offensive line that allowed just 15 sacks last season and averaged 175 yards on the ground.

3. Don Barclay, tackle, West Virginia. Another veteran player with plenty of starting experience, Barclay has started 27 games and was a second-team Big East selection last season. Barclay also is on two watch lists (Lomardi and Outland). Here is how valuable he is to the WVU starting line: He was on the field for more than 860 plays last season.

4. Joe Madsen, center, West Virginia. Madsen, Petrus and Mario Benavides make quite a trio of terrific centers in the Big East. Madsen has also started every game he has played in (25), and he only allowed one sack last season. He is so good, he won the team's offensive player of the game honors three times last season.

5. Justin Pugh, tackle, Syracuse. Pugh had quite the impressive debut season, starting all 13 games at left tackle as a redshirt freshman en route to second-team All Big East honors. He might not be huge (6-foot-5, 287 pounds), but he is athletic and should be among the best in the league.

6. Mario Benavides, center, Louisville. Listing three centers among the top six should show you how good the top players at the position are this season. Benavides has started 24 games in his career but could be even better this season after offseason knee surgery.

7. Lucas Nix, tackle, Pitt. Nix should be considered the rock of the Pitt offensive line as he returns for his third season as a starter. With Chris Jacobson moving to center, Nix provides some stability and should be key in helping the Panthers continue their strong ground attack.

8. Alex Hoffman, tackle, Cincinnati. Hoffman has started 25 games and was a second-team All-Big East pick in 2009. Last season, the Bearcats had their share of early struggles, but he did help them get their first 1,000-yard rusher since 2004. He also is on the Lombardi Award watch list.

9. Jeremiah Warren, guard, USF. Warren and Chaz Hine make up the best guard tandem in the Big East. In fact, guard is a position with plenty of question marks throughout the league. But that is not the case for the Bulls. Warren has started 26 games, and he and Hine will help anchor a line with three new starters.

10. Chaz Hine, guard, USF. Hine has a remarkable story, going from walk-on to starter to one of the best guards in the league. Now that he will be in the second year of Skip Holtz's system, he should be even better.
Now by popular demand, we begin ranking the positions across the Big East. I know I am a little late to the party on this one, but better late than never, right? I asked on Twitter for suggestions on which position to start with today. There was no consensus. But I did like one suggestion: to work our way up from the line.

So first up is the offensive line. To make these rankings, I considered returning starters, accolades for returning starters, position switches and depth. The truth is, this is not an area of strength for the league as a whole. Most teams have depth concerns and questions at one or more positions.

[+] EnlargeJustin Pugh
Cliff Welch/Icon SMI Justin Pugh earned all-conference honors last season as a freshman.
1. Syracuse. The Orange have four returning starters, including two seniors. You have Justin Pugh, who made second-team All-Big East last year as a freshman. You have a more mature and experienced unit than the one last year, which had to replace four starters. There also is depth to have a nice eight-man rotation. The concern is at center, where Macky MacPherson is undersized. Actually, when you look at the entire group, it is undersized. Andrew Tiller is the only one who tips the scales at more than 300 pounds.

2. West Virginia. The offensive line was an area of strength under Rich Rodriguez, but has struggled the past few years. It was hard to get a gauge on this unit in the spring, with both starting tackles Jeff Braun and Don Barclay out because of injuries. Starting guard Josh Jenkins also got hurt and is still not 100 percent. But the potential is there for this group to be significantly improved.

3. UConn. The strength of this unit is at tackle and center, where the Huskies return first-team All-Big East selection Mike Ryan (20 career starts) and Adam Masters (18 career starts). Moe Petrus, a second-team all-conference pick, has 39 career starts. Their experience should help along the guards -- nobody on the roster has started a game at the position. The good news is that Gary Bardzak does have starting experience, but it came at center.

4. Pittsburgh. The Panthers made so many position shifts during the spring that it is hard tell how this unit is going to shape up come fall. Chris Jacobson moving to center was one of the biggest moves, and Pittsburgh hopes it pays off with more stability there. Jacobson and starting tackles Jordan Gibbs and Lucas Nix have a combined 49 career starts, but Pitt has to make up for losing first-team Big East selection Jason Pinkston.

5. USF. The Bulls are going to be young on the offensive line this season after losing first-team All-Big East center Sampson Genus, along with tackles Jamar Bass and Jake Sims (second team All-Big East). Chaz Hine and Jeremiah Warren are a solid tandem at guard, and Mark Popek at left tackle and Kevin McCaskill at center do have playing experience. But at right tackle, USF plans to go with redshirt freshman Quinterrius Eatmon. He does have loads of potential, but there will be a learning curve. Depth also is an issue, and the Bulls could have true freshmen in the rotation.

6. Cincinnati. The Bearcats had their share of problems last season, ranking second-to-last in the Big East in sacks allowed (31). This year, they have to replace three starters on the offensive line with unproven players. Senior right tackle Alex Hoffman has taken on some leadership responsibility with the loss of Jason Kelce, but players like Austen Bujnoch, Andre Cureton, Sean Hooey and Evan Davis are going to have to step up. Depth could also be an issue here.

7. Louisville. The Cardinals return just one starter in center Mario Benavides, who has been hampered with a knee injury. Ryan Kessling and Alex Kupper have playing experience, but most everybody else is pretty unproven, and that makes for one of the biggest question areas on the team headed into the fall.

8. Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights own the bottom spot until the season starts and we can see how much this unit has improved. It is a well-known fact that they finished last in sacks allowed and were one of the worst rushing teams in the country last season for that reason. They suffered a blow when junior college transfer Dallas Hendrikson went down with a season-ending injury in the spring, but coach Greg Schiano said he saw plenty of improvement from this group. They certainly will have more experience, but how much better will they be?
PITTSBURGH -- A few quick thoughts and observations from what I got to see of Pitt's spring practice on Tuesday:
  • I was looking forward to seeing just how high-octane this offense was, to use Todd Graham's description. While the usual drills and other periods were held at the same tempo as a lot of practices I've seen, when Pitt went to an 11-on-11 drill it was pedal to the metal. The offense was sprinting to the line of scrimmage and snapping the ball in under 10 seconds. That doesn't mean it was effective. There was a bad shotgun snap from Chris Jacobson and another one mishandled by backup quarterback Anthony Gonzalez. Throw in an incomplete deep ball, and the short team period looked a little disjointed. But fast.
  • In the past couple of years, Pitt was always what Dick Vitale would call an "All-Airport" team. That is, they looked awfully good in their uniforms. The Panthers don't look quite as physically imposing this spring, but perhaps that's just because guys like Jon Baldwin, Greg Romeus and Jabaal Sheard are not longer around. This team still has plenty of talent, though depth looks like it could be an issue.
  • Tino Sunseri has pretty clearly established his hold on the starting quarterback job as the incumbent. He had a little trouble hooking up with receivers on deep balls while I was watching, but the coaching staff loves his poise and experience. Remember that Graham has won with quarterbacks who weren't necessarily physical specimens but who were really smart. Sunseri, as a coach's kid and with a year under his belt, fits that bill.
  • Gonzalez got the first backup QB snaps on Tuesday, though he didn't throw as much as Mark Myers in some other drills. It's hard not to like Myers' skills; he's tall and throws a very tight spiral. Is he the right quarterback for this system? That's a good question, considering he looks like a prototypical pro-style signalcaller, which is one reason why he signed with Pitt.
  • Receiver Cam Saddler was back on the field after missing some time with a leg injury. The 5-foot-7 speedster has got to love this offensive system after not really getting used much by Dave Wannstedt. He's the kind of waterbug Graham found success with at Tulsa. Devin Street and Mike Shanahan look terrific as the top two wideouts. Pitt just has to find more guys behind them.
  • The first-string offensive line, for what it's worth, saw Lucas Nix and Jordan Gibbs at tackle, Greg Gaskins and Cory King at guard and Jacobson at center. Gaskins struggled last year when he was first given a chance to start but now he's a senior. After Gaskins made a nice block in a lineman drill, offensive line coach Spencer Leftwich yelled, "If you do that, you can play here."
  • As usual in these settings, it's hard to tell a whole lot about the defense when there's not much hitting. But Graham raves about his defensive line, saying tackle Chas Alecxih in particular has had a huge spring. He also says cornerback K'Waun Williams "can be special." Some currently injured players like Brandon Lindsey, Antwuan Reed and Todd Thomas will help when they're healthy.
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.

[+] EnlargeTino Sunseri
Richard Mackson/US PresswirePittsburgh 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.

The guy who nearly broke Tony Dorsett's single-game rushing record last week, who leads the Big East with a 9.5 yards-per-carry average and who ranks third nationally in rushing yards per game will likely start this week's game on the bench. And he's not complaining.

[+] EnlargeRay Graham
Andrew Weber/US PresswireRay Graham has made a case for more carries in Pittsburgh's crowded backfield.

"I'm cool with that," Pittsburgh tailback Ray Graham said. "Coach made the decision and he's going to stick with it. I'm just going to go out there whenever I get my name called and just play."

Graham has made Dave Wannstedt's running back decision extremely tough, which is not something many people would have predicted at the beginning of the season. The starting job belonged unquestionably to Dion Lewis, who as a freshman won the Big East offensive player of the year award and was the nation's leading returning rusher after a 1,799-yard campaign.

But Lewis has not gotten on track yet this season, failing to break 100 yards in any game and totaling just 143 yards on 47 carries. Graham, on the other hand, has 492 yards on five more attempts and was the team's only real offensive weapon against Miami. When Lewis missed last week's game against Florida International with a banged-up shoulder, Graham erupted for 277 yards and three touchdowns.

Still, Wannstedt said Lewis will start this week at Notre Dame, though Graham has earned the right to get perhaps as many carries as his classmate

"We have a lot of other issues that are a concern to me other than who’s going to be carrying the ball," Wannstedt said. "We’re fortunate to have both those guys, and we’ll continue to play them both.”

Graham was the more highly touted recruit in last year's class, but once he arrived in the summer he found himself behind Lewis, who had enrolled in January. Now he feels like he's on more equal footing.

"This year, I've hit the weight room and I'm stronger," he said. "I spent a lot of time in the film room, and now I'm knowing my plays more. I feel more confident out there this year compared to last year. That was the biggest progression."

Other players in Graham's situation last year might have transferred for more playing time. Wannstedt said he was honest with Graham about where he stood and had several conversations last year with Graham's uncle and high school coach, who are both influential in his life.

"Ray showed what kind of person he is with how he handled everything with Dion last year having all the success he had week after week," Wannstedt said. "There’s no more humble player on our team."

There doesn't seem to be any problem between Graham and Lewis, even if there might be a growing controversy over who should start. In last week's game, the two could be seen hanging out and laughing together on the sidelines. Graham said the two are great friends.

"When he scores, I'm the first one over there to credit him, and he does the same for me," he said. "We have a little celebration dance we do on the sidelines. We're always helping each other out."

Graham has a little more of a burst than Lewis, and his ability to make people miss has come in handy this season as the Pitt offensive line has struggled to create holes. That line got a makeover last week with Lucas Nix moving inside to guard and Jordan Gibbs taking over at right tackle. That gave the running game a spark, and the Panthers hope that continues in South Bend.

Lewis will get first crack at running behind that remade line this week. And the guy with the huge rushing numbers will support him.

"He's going to get it going in this game and make it happen," Graham said. "Once that happens, we'll have a dangerous tandem with him and me, and it's going to be hard to stop us both."


What to watch in the Big East: Week 5

September, 30, 2010
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1. TCB Weekend: It's a rare week when every Big East team is favored and expected to win, with only UConn's game against Vanderbilt featuring a major-conference opponent. The league has been battered and bruised for its September performance, so this is a time to pick up some wins and confidence -- provided that everybody takes care of business.

[+] EnlargeCody Endres
AP Photo/Fred BeckhamCody Endres completed 7 of 11 passes for 139 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions in relief of Zach Frazer last week.
2. Endres enters: Cody Endres looked good in relief of Zach Frazer at quarterback for Connecticut last week, and now he gets his first starting assignment since October of last season. Can he keep it up against an SEC defense? And can the Huskies passing game continue to show improvement?

3. UConn's rush to victory: Notice I called Vanderbilt an SEC defense in the last item, and technically that's true. But the Commodores rank 105th in the FBS in rushing defense, allowing 206 yards per game. We don't know yet if Jordan Todman will play after missing last week's game with an arm injury. But clearly there should be some running room for a team that loves to move the ball on the ground.

4. Macho Man Savage?: Rutgers quarterback Tom Savage is dealing with bruised ribs, and if you ever experienced an injury there, you know how painful that can be. It remains to be seen whether Savage, who has gotten off to a rough start while healthy, will play or be able to be effective against Tulane. If he can't go, then true freshman Chas Dodd may be forced into action, or Mohamed Sanu will see a whole lot of Wildcat time. That could make an already scuffling Rutgers offense even more sketchy.

5. Pitt's new-look line: Pittsburgh shook things up this week with its offensive line, moving tackle Lucas Nix inside and installing Jordan Gibbs at right tackle. The Panthers are desperately trying to get the line right and open up room for their running game, which is key to everything they want to do. The reshaped line gets its first challenge against Florida International, which gave Rutgers all it could handle in Week 2. FIU likes to blitz from different angles and has Florida athletes, so this will be a good litmus test for Pitt's makeover.

6. Sunseri in the spotlight: Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri did not look good against Miami, and when reserve Pat Bostick came in during the fourth quarter some fans were ready to make the change permanent. Dave Wannstedt isn't ready to make a switch and still believes in Sunseri. But clearly, the first-year starter needs to get on track, because the Panthers don't have much room for error. And they have a veteran in Bostick waiting in the wings.

7. Bulls on the run or in the air?: South Florida escaped Western Kentucky last week by running the ball almost exclusively. Now the Bulls play a Florida Atlantic team that ranks last in the country in rushing defense. So expect some more of the power I-formation look, and potentially a big day for Demetris Murray and Mo Plancher. At the same time, however, receivers Dontavia Bogan and Sterling Griffin could be back from injury, and both could use some work before next week's Big East opener against Syracuse. So USF needs to air it out a bit, too.

8. New Cardinals catchers: Louisville has suffered all kinds of injuries at the receiver position, the latest knocking out leading pass catcher Doug Beaumont. The Cardinals need to find people to make plays in the passing game this week at Arkansas State, and they could look to junior college transfer Josh Bellamy, sophomore Andrell Smith or freshmen Kai Dominguez and Jarrett Davis. None have much experience, and Louisville will likely need to get plays out of them against a Red Wolves team that's averaging 28 points per game.
Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

PITTSBURGH -- Given that it's their last year of college and they have a bye week for Halloween, roommates Bill Stull and Dorin Dickerson are planning their costumes for next week.

"We're big scary movie guys," Stull said. "We might get some Michael Myers and Jason outfits."

 
  Justin K. Aller/Icon SMI
  Pittsburgh quarterback Bill Stull led a frighteningly good Panthers team Saturday.
Simply by wearing their home football uniforms on Saturday, the Pittsburgh teammates helped scare the bejeezus out of the rest of the Big East.

The No. 20 Panthers have always been viewed as having perhaps the most talented roster in the league, but they also held themselves back with silly mistakes or sloppy execution. This week, Pitt put everything together in a 41-14 pounding of South Florida that wasn't even as close as that lopsided score indicates.

All things considered, it was the top overall performance of the Dave Wannstedt era. Pittsburgh (7-1, 4-0 Big East) is off to its best start since Dan Marino's senior year in 1982, and if it can approach this week's performance, it might well finish as the Big East champion.

The Panthers only have three more league games left, and the next one is Syracuse at home after the bye. They close the season at West Virginia, whom they've beaten two years in a row, and at home against Cincinnati Dec. 5 in what is shaping up as a possible de facto league title game.

"Up to this point, it's probably all talk (about) are you a contender or a pretender," Wannstedt said. "I think our guys now should get a taste that we should be a contender."

Put this win in context of the calendar, because October is the time of year when South Florida always wilts. Still, the Bulls have rarely gotten steamrolled quite like this.

Pitt never punted, led 31-7 at halftime and rested all of its starters in the fourth quarter after building a 41-7 cushion. The defense, which had allowed too many passing yards and hadn't created enough turnovers most of the season, bullied the Bulls into three interceptions and just 212 total yards. South Florida quarterback B.J. Daniels had as many picks (2) and sacks (2) as he did completions while going just 4-of-8 for 54 yards.

The other side of the ball proved even more impressive. The ballyhooed South Florida defensive line never got any leverage against the Panthers' offensive front. Stull had enough time to finish a Primanti Bros. sandwich before he threw and was never sacked. Did he even get hit?

"I got a little push one time," said Stull, who completed his first 11 passes and threw for 245 yards and two scores in the comfy pocket.

Pitt kept tight end Nate Byham in to block and left fullback Henry Hynoski in on third down for the first time all season to neutralize defensive ends George Selvie and Jason Pierre-Paul. Tackles Jason Pinkston and Lucas Nix did the rest.

"(Offensive line coach Tony) Wise put the challenge on me and Lucas, just to get our hands on them right away," Pinkston said. "We let Bill get hit a couple of times at Rutgers last week, so we took it on ourselves this week."

The lack of pressure opened all sorts of options. Offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti wisely force fed 6-foot-5 receiver Jonathan Baldwin, who had six catches for a career-best 144 yards. Freshman tailback Dion Lewis piled up 111 yards and two touchdowns while going over 1,000 yards for the season, and fellow freshman Ray Graham added 88 yards on the ground.

Apologies to Cincinnati and West Virginia, but Pittsburgh might have the most varied offensive weapons in the Big East.

"Shady (McCoy) was a great player, but he was our offense last year," Dickerson said. "That's what's difference about this team -- we've got a lot more playmakers."

"We've never had this type of balance," Wannstedt said.

Wannstedt said he heard an interview with Phil Simms on the radio while driving to Heinz Field, and Simms talked about how teams make mistakes to keep themselves average. He relayed that message to his players before the game, and Pitt played about as cleanly as possible, committing only two penalties and converting 11 of 16 third downs.

It looks like a team of horror-movie fans is developing a killer instinct.

"We definitely inflicted some pain today," Stull said.
Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

PITTSBURGH -- Greetings from Heinz Field, where it's homecoming for No. 20 Pitt against South Florida today.

It rained nearly all day Friday, but the skies are clear this afternoon and the temperature should be about 60 degrees by kickoff.

One bit of pregame news for South Florida: Running back Jamar Taylor, who's missed the entire season with a knee injury, will dress and is expected to play. How much of a role he will have is questionable.

What I like about this game is that, using strictly the eyeball test, these two teams might have the most impressive overall rosters in the Big East. I'm not saying they're the best or even the most talented teams. But they both have athletes who look imposing coming off the bus.

And the high level of skill players on both sides makes for some enticing matchups. A few I'm most interested in today are:
  • George Selvie vs. Jason Pinkston: The Bulls' senior defensive end had a great battle last week with Cincinnati left tackle Jeff Linkenbach and will face another of the league's best today. Jason Pierre-Paul will give sophomore right tackle Lucas Nix a handful as well.
  • Jonathan Baldwin vs. Jerome Murphy and Nate Allen: The Panthers' 6-foot-5 freak of an athlete at receiver will go against one of the league's better corners and perhaps its best safety. Murphy will have to play better than his mistake-filled game against Cincinnati.
  • Dion Lewis vs. Kion Wilson: The battle of 'ions. The Big East's leading rusher will surely be met several times by the Bulls' tough-as-nails middle linebacker. We'll see if Wilson has any more success wrapping up the 5-foot-8 ball of fury than other defenders have so far this season.

I'll have much more to come throughout the day from the Steel City.

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

LeSean McCoy's mother said the family is awaiting a report from the NFL draft advisory board before making a decision on his future, Kevin Gorman writes in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

"LeSean does love being there. He loves Pitt and loves the football team. I know he wants to be there," Daphne McCoy said. "But he's 20. At 20 years old, you don't always know what's good for you.

"For right now, it looks like he'll be back next year. If the report tells us anything different, we'll see if he should come out at this time."

• Among the assorted items from Dave Wannstedt's season-ending news conference, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Paul Zeise: Quarterbacks Kevan Smith and Greg Cross have asked to change positions, and the staff is looking at using Smith at tight end and Cross at safety; freshmen Lucas Nix and Chris Jacobson will play big roles on the offensive line in '09; and Steve Dell, Max Gruder and Brandon Lindsay will battle to replace Scott McKillop.

• West Virginia kicker Pat McAfee got an invite to the Senior Bowl, the Charleston Daily Mail reports.

• A one-time Rutgers commit is now going to Cal, The Star-Ledger reports.

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