For Pitt Panthers fans, it’s become a habit to point the finger at quarterback Tino Sunseri after every heartbreaking Panthers defeat.
Not this time.
While Sunseri certainly could always be better under center for the Panthers, he shouldn’t even be a concern for new head coach Paul Chryst as the Panthers have a quick turnaround, beginning Big East Conference play Thursday night at Cincinnati.
All attention should be on fixing the Pitt defense and doing so quickly. With big games against the Bearcats and Virginia Tech upcoming, the Pitt defense could dig the Panthers an early hole they may not be able to climb out of.
With only four starters returning from a unit that came together nicely by the end of the season last year, many expected a small transition, but nothing nearly as bad as we saw during Saturday’s catastrophic loss to Youngstown State.
To fix things by Thursday, Chryst can look to sure up a couple of areas immediately.
First of all, the run defense was awful.
The Penguins gained a whopping 204 yards on 46 carries. That’s not what you’d expect from a presumably bigger, faster and stronger FBS squad hosting an FCS team.
When Andre Stubbs averages 11.8 yards on just six carries, the biggest immediate problem is stopping the run. The Panthers must be able to force Cincinnati into second and third-and-long situations and that didn’t happen on Saturday.
Pitt wasn’t able to get off the field and ultimately made things easy for Youngstown State. If Pitt can’t stop the run, every team in the Big East will run all over them this season.
The next thing to address is getting some pressure on the quarterback.
Youngstown State didn’t have to pass much, but when they did, quarterback Kurt Hess had a field day. Hess didn’t light up the stat sheet with 13-of-23 passing and 154 yards, but he had time to scan the field and find the open man, especially downfield. Hess never had a finger laid on him and was rarely hurried. With a defensive front that features Aaron Donald, who had 11 sacks a season ago, you would have thought that the Panthers would have been able to pressure Hess a bit more but that wasn’t the case.
If the Panthers had trouble generating a pass rush against a team they should have been bigger and faster than, then what are they going to do in the Big East?
Next, they must address the big play.
The scoring plays for the Penguins all came on big plays. Hess completed a 27-yarder to Stubbs to open the game and followed that up with another 14-yard TD pass to Will Shaw. Even starting running back Jamaine Cook connected with Shaw for 23 yards in the third to put them up 21-10.
The third down efficiency numbers also show that Pitt didn’t know how to stop the big play. Youngstown State was 11-16 on third down and Cook’s TD came on a 4th-and-1. The secondary should be the strength of this team but someone is going to have to step up and make plays just to help this team get off the field. With the likes of K’Waun Williams, Andrew Taglianetti, Jarred Holley, Ray Vinopal and other talented players in the Pitt defensive backfield, it’s almost shocking no one could make a big play.
Finally, a finger can be pointed at the offense and the fact that sometimes the best defense is a good offensive attack.
Sunseri and company must be able to sustain drives and more importantly cash in on them. Pitt lost the turnover battle 2-0 and scored only 10 points from inside the red zone, fumbling twice in scoring position.
At the end of the day, the Panthers must look in the mirror and forget about what happened against Youngstown State. They have a lot of holes to plug and need to start by fixing the defense. It’s still a bit early to know whether the problem is scheme or personnel, but changes are going to have to be made in one form or another.
If they aren’t, Pitt could find themselves in an 0-3 hole with the blink of an eye.
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