An Early Look at Iowa vs. Pittsburgh - 2011

on
Pittsburgh

The Game

Event: Iowa vs. Pittsburgh
Location: Kinnick Stadium, Iowa City, IA
When: September 17, 2011 - 11:00 AM
TV: ESPN or ESPN2


The Basics

Location: Pittsburgh, PA
Head Coach: Todd Graham
Mascot: Panthers
Conference: Big East
2010 Record: 8-5 (5-2)


The Offense

Returning Starters: 6
Key Players: QB Tino Sunseri, WR Mike Shanahan
Key Losses: RB Dion Lewis, OL Jason Pinkston, WR Jon Baldwin

Under new head coach Todd Graham, Pitt's offense will be no-huddle and fast-paced (it was installed at Tulsa by Gus Malzhan, Auburn's current OC...so think Auburn minus Cam Newton). Graham was previously the head coach at Tulsa, a team who averaged over 500 yards of offense and over 40 points per game. That will be a drastic change from the more traditional offense that Pitt employed under Dave Wannstedt. However, the transition may not fully be complete by the third week of the year. Pitt may have more of a scaled back version of Graham's high octane offense.

The Panthers will be led by returning starter QB Tino Sunseri. Sunseri was kind of a poor man's Ricky Stanzi last year. They had almost identical number for completions and attempts (Stanzi - 221 of 345 : Sunseri - 223 of 346), but Sunseri had fewer yards (3005 : 2572), fewer TDs (25 : 16), and more interceptions (6 : 9). It's safe to say that under Pitt's new offense, his passing attempts will go up (not necessarily because it's a pass-heavy offense, because it's not, but because of the no-huddle they'll run a lot more plays). In the spring game he threw the ball 55 times completing 35 for 416 yards.

Pitt's leading receiver from last year is gone, but the Panthers do return some experience at the position. Mike Shanahan (no relation to current Redskin's head coach of the same name) had 43 receptions for 589 yards last year. Devin Street and Cameron Saddler are the other likely starters at receiver. Behind these three are a bunch of sophomores and freshmen without much experience. TE Mike Cruz is another returning starter and may contribute some in the passing game.

Pitt also lost its top running back from last year, 1000-yard rusher Dion Lewis. Returning, though, is Ray Graham who had 922 of his own rushing yards and averaged over 6 yards per carry. Graham will have to adjust to the zone-read from the down-hill running he was doing last year, but will probably still be effective. Judging on Tulsa's past offenses, Pitt will probably have more involvement from the receivers and the quarterback in the rushing game. Sunseri was a decent runner last year. He had 108 yards and 2 TDs on 53 carries.

The Defense

Returning Starters: 8
Key Players: WLB Max Gruder, FS Jarred Holley, DE/Panther Brandon Lindsey
Key Losses: SS Dom DeCicco, DE Jabaal Sheard

The Panthers return most of the starters from last year, though like the offense they'll be learning a new system. Under Wannstedt Pitt was a fairly standard 4-3 defense. Pitt will be moving to a 3-3-5 look that has positions called Panther (hybrid DE/OLB), Spur (hybrid S/LB--more on the LB side), and Bandit (another hybrid S/LB--more on the S side).

He linebackers will be the most experienced unit on defense and all 3 starters return and will be seniors. At the Will position is Max Gruder, who was #2 on the team in tackles last year with 84. He also had an INT and recovered 2 fumbles. The other two are Greg Williams at Spur and Tristian Roberts at Sam. Williams was third on the team in tackles with 64.

Up front, Pitt has a pair of good defensive tackles returning. Chas Alecxih had 7.5 sacks and 57 tackles last year (which was 4th on the team). At nose tackle is Myles Caragein. At "panther" will be former DE Brandon Lindsey. Lindsey led the team in sacks (10) and in tackles for loss (17.5), so despite the change in position name I still think he'll be rushing the passer far more than he drops back into coverage.

The secondary will be led by FS Jared Holley. Holley was 1st Team All-Conference last year and led the team with 5 interceptions. He was also 5th on the team in tackles with 54. Pitt has one returning cornerback in Antwuan Reed.

The Special Teams

Returning Starters: 0
Key Players: PK Kevin Harper, KR Cameron Saddler
Key Losses: PK/P Dan Hutchins

Pitt had one man, Dan Hutchins, handling both field goals and punting last year and he is now gone. In his place will be Kevin Harper who was the kick off specialist. He has attempted just 1 field goal in his career: a 51-yard miss. Punter is completely up in the air. There are currently 3 walk-ons vying for the job.

One spot on special teams that Pitt should be experienced is at returner. Cameron Saddler was both a punt and kick returner last year. He had 25 punt returns and averaged just over 10 yards per return. On kickoffs he averaged 20.9 yards on 22 returns. Joining Saddler on kickoffs last year was Ray Graham. Graham put up similar numbers as Saddler and averaged 21.8 yards on 23 returns.

Initial Thoughts

This will be a much different Pitt team than Iowa played in 3 years ago. They have enough talent and enough experience to be a pretty good team this year, but it remains to be seen how well the players adjust to a new coaching staff and a new style of play. Iowa gets the Panthers early in the year, which should be an advantage against a learning team. It is also Pitt's first road game and first game against a quality opponent (they have Buffalo and Maine the two prior weeks). So I do think this is a very winnable game for Iowa.

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