Host Pitt escapes Maine with a shaky victory

Jerry DiPaola
| Sunday, Sept. 11, 2011

If Pitt's 35-29 victory Saturday over Maine felt more like a loss, there are many good reasons for that.

The gruesome details that unfolded at Heinz Field in front of an announced crowd of 41,230 began with quarterback Tino Sunseri's two interceptions, and it spiraled downward from there.


» The offensive line's inability to handle Maine's cleverly disguised pass rush that resulted in seven sacks.

» The defense's failure to get any turnovers after coach Todd Graham shouted like a preacher about their importance.

» The missed field goal, extra point and continued struggles of kicker Kevin Harper, which has been another point of emphasis by Graham.

And when Graham criticized the pass defense that now has allowed 610 yards and three touchdowns to Buffalo of the MAC and Maine of the FCS, fans can justifiably wonder where this season is headed.

Pitt surrendered 334 yards passing yesterday.

"We are giving up stupid plays in the passing game," Graham said of his defense that returned eight starters from last year. "It's just ridiculous."

Pitt is admittedly trying to muddle through the early weeks of the season while learning offensive and defensive systems that are foreign to every player, but senior inside linebacker Max Gruder doesn't want to take the easy way out of this jam.

"I am not going to sit here and make excuses about a new system," he said. "It's new assignments. It's new alignments, but you still have to tackle. Football is football.

"It is not acceptable. We can't let that happen again."

No doubt, with a trip to Iowa scheduled for next Saturday, Pitt (2-0) must get better in a hurry or suffer consequences that do not fit its expectations.

"We are a Big East championship team," Gruder said, "and we are playing very average."

Or, as Graham explained it, "We played down to the level of competition. Very lackluster."

For the second game in a row, Pitt underwhelmed its followers, stumbling to a 20-7 halftime lead. This time, however, the situation got worse instead of better in the second half.

Maine (1-1) trimmed the lead to 20-15 with 6:13 left in the first half. That's when running back Ray Graham put the team back on his shoulders and scored his third touchdown of the game and sixth of the season. Overall, Graham totaled 28 carries for 121 yards, a week after getting 29 and 201 against Buffalo.

Pitt led, 28-15, when Sunseri threw his second interception early in the fourth quarter. After getting the ball back, Graham decided to experiment — like he had promised earlier in the week — with freshman Trey Anderson.

The immediate result was an 11-play, 52-yard scoring drive, with backup running back Zach Brown scoring from the 1-yard line. Later, Graham said the job remains in Sunseri's possession, even though he inserted Anderson with 12:33 left in the game and Pitt ahead by only 13 points.

"Tino is our quarterback and will be next week," Graham said. "I still have 100 percent belief in him, but I didn't want to come out of this week and play an opponent we should go out and dominate and not get another quarterback any reps."

Yet, he also said, "We have to execute better at that position. Does (Sunseri) need to improve• Obviously, he needs to improve. So do a lot of people."

That includes a defense that allowed two touchdowns in the final 3:12.

"We went into halftime and (Maine) had scored seven points," Graham said. "That's all they should have scored."

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