Submitted by Jim Hurley on Thursday, September 29, 2011 at 9:17 AM
Todd Graham was hired away from Tulsa to revolutionize the boring, plodding offense of the Pitt Panthers. Prior coach Dave Wannstedt preferred a defensive, smash mouth style of football from the 1950's. That was good enough to contend most seasons...in a weak conference...against a weak schedule...but made it hard to sell tickets and recruit offensive stars.
Playmakers want to make plays. Fans want to see exciting football! Not off-tackle runs followed by punts and defensive stops.
Graham was one of many coaches who had been climbing the ladder thanks to a variation of the spread offense. Even if the luster was wearing off the approach as defenses adjusted...he was seen as a guy who could get Pittsburgh up to speed on that side of the ball very quickly. And...in a league like the Big East...keep Pitt as an annual contender without losing a step overall (though, Pitt is now headed to greener football pastures in the ACC).
The hiring was met with a lot of excitement at Pittsburgh (by people who hadn't looked closely at what Graham's teams had done when stepping up in class the past few years!). They were sick of yawning through Coach Wannstedt's games of yesteryear. Things were at least going to be EXCITING in 2011!
But, just four games into the new campaign, there's already been some grumbling. Heading into Thursday Night's home game against South Florida on ESPN that opens the Big East season...the Panthers sit at 2-2 with an offense that hasn't been able to score when needed.
Here's a quick look at the season to date:
Pittsburgh opened with a 35-16 win over Buffalo. If you only casually follow football, that seems like a nice win. They weren't playing the Bills! Pitt was a 30-point favorite in this game, and barely made it past the spread. And, they had to score with just over a minute left to do that. The supposedly upgraded passing game managed just 179 yards in the air against a bad MAC opponent.
Pittsburgh then struggled to get past Maine (!) in a 35-29 conquest. Again, they were 30-point favorites. They only won by six! Pitt passed for just only 224 yards against a non-board team. Quarterback Tino Sunseri, who doesn't have a strong downfield arm, threw two interceptions.
Pittsburgh looked to have broken through against Iowa. The Panthers led 27-10 in the fourth quarter on the road...at a site where it's very tough to steal underdog victories. This isn't a vintage Iowa team by the looks of it...but this would have still been a nice win. Unfortunately...Pitt blew the lead and the cover, ultimately losing 31-27 as three-point underdogs. The offense disappeared in the fourth quarter. And, to be fair, one of their earlier touchdowns came on a trick pass from wide receiver Ronald Jones. Sunseri threw two more interceptions.
Pittsburgh had a chance to make a statement last week in an early national TV game against Notre Dame. It was the best of the early TV matchups, meaning the world would be watching...then seeing highlights all afternoon and evening on the scoreboard shows. The Panthers didn't provide many highlights in a 15-12 loss. Sunseri only passed for 165 yards. You never got the sense that Pitt was about to explode either. They had some nice runs here and there. Graham was supposed to create a juggernaut. Pitt saves its worst offensive performance of the year for the worst possible time.
Rome wasn't built in a day...so it's possible that fans (and the Vegas betting markets) were expecting too much too soon. But, there was a real danger sign in our view that came up earlier this week when Graham was talking to the media about his offense. Reporters were wondering what was wrong to this point. Graham said of his offense in his Monday press conference:
"We are not running it. That is what is wrong with it, so as soon as we start running it [it will produce]. The main thing is being disciplined enough to do what they are coached to do."
That's coach-speak for "It's not my fault. It's the players fault. What I do works...and if it's not working, blame the players."
This is the kind of stuff we've heard for YEARS from so-called "offensive geniuses" who don't recognize when defenses have adjusted to their schematics. You can go back to when the fun first started with teams like Maryland and Purdue...and ride the trend all through the decade.
To Graham's credit...and probably to the credit of reporters to who asked him if he wanted to clarify his remarks so it didn't sound like he was throwing his players under a bus...Graham came back Tuesday to say:
"I really like how the team leaders have taken ownership of this team. And one of the things that I want to make perfectly clear is that everything we do, I am accountable for. Period. I am. I'm not pointing fingers and you will never hear excuses come from me."
No, we'll never hear excuses from him. He says his players are undisciplined on Monday, then talks about their leadership on Tuesday.
We're very interested to see how this plays out. It's easy for players to stop drinking the kool-aid when a coach acts like that. But, they WERE excited about playing in this style offense...and new coaches usually get longer than a month before players tune them out. You saw Brian Kelly of Notre Dame turn purple with rage earlier this season. His team has since defeated Michigan State and Pittsburgh.
If the Panthers beat South Florida Thursday on ESPN as small home underdogs, they'll be 1-0 in the Big East and nobody's going to care much about what happened before league play began. If they lose...then things could get ugly very quickly. Pitt may not currently have talent best suited to run this schematic...and it's a schematic that the sport has been adjusting to anyway.
South Florida already has a big road win under their belts with that season opening shocker at Notre Dame. Of course, that was a turnover win more than a clean win because South Florida got killed in the stats. Still, if you can win and cover in South Bend, you can win and cover in Pittsburgh against a team that just lost to that same Notre Dame program. Note that South Florida comes into this game with triple revenge, having lost three straight to the Panthers in the Wannstedt years.
JIM HURLEY will have something special for you Thursday Night in either South Florida/Pittsburgh or Houston/UTEP (televised by CBSC on cable or satellite). That will kick off another huge football weekend that includes these highlights:
Friday: we have Utah State-BYU on ESPN.
Saturday: a college smorgasbord featuring dream games like Alabama-Florida, Nebraska-Wisconsin, Clemson-Virginia Tech, and Michigan State-Ohio State...along with other marquee matchups like Texas A&M-Arkansas, Auburn-South Carolina, and even Air Force-Navy for you fans of the military academies.
Sunday: how about NY Jets-Baltimore, New England-Oakland, Pittsburgh-Houston, and Detroit-Dallas to get your juices flowing? And, there are a few high profile teams who are already in must-win spots after disappointing starts to the season (like Philadelphia, and Atlanta to name a couple).
You can go day-by-day with us here at the website with your credit card. Or, sign up for a longer term package to get the most bang for your buck. If you have any questions, call the NETWORK office at 1-800-323-4453. Be sure to ask about postseason baseball when you call.
We're on a great run of late in football. IT'S ONLY SEPTEMBER...SO THE WINNING IS JUST BEGINNING!