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Kovacevic: For Tino and Pitt, a clean slate

| Friday, Sept. 30, 2011

For all the high-octane, calculus-level complexities of the Pitt and South Florida playbooks, the Panthers' 44-17 flattening of the No. 16 Bulls on Thursday night at Heinz Field could be condensed to a simple three-step plan:

1. Run Ray Graham till he drops.

2. Contain B.J. Daniels, South Florida's scrambling quarterback.

3. Get their own quarterback, Tino Sunseri, to quickly survey the field at the line, make the right read, avoid taking a sack, throw firmly and accurately, run enough to take some heat off Graham, and instill confidence in everyone around him.

Yeah, I saw that No. 3 coming, too.

Sunseri had done none of those things previously, of course, but he and the Panthers washed it all away with one electric night: The Big East opener left the team 3-2 overall, but 1-0 where it counts. A relentless Graham ripped through the Bulls for 226 yards. The defense played with a fresh fire. And the quarterback wearing the bull's-eye completed 22 of 33 passes for 216 yards and a touchdown, ran for 35 yards and another touchdown, never was intercepted and ... well, all that other stuff he hadn't been doing.

The kid showed serious mental moxie, more than anything, and it all started there.

"I thought Tino was tough," Pitt coach Todd Graham said, enunciating that last word. "He had a great pocket presence, was decisive with the football, and he was the commander out there. I thought he took charge of our team tonight."

Sunseri had been taking all manner of grief, probably even while carrying his books to his next class. He was the weak link, the soft-armed, slow-footed quarterback who was killing the Panthers. Never mind how much of the criticism was true and still might be in the future. It stings. It cuts to the core. It can distract, and it can demoralize.

I asked Sunseri how much he let it get to him, and he laughed.

"Well, no one's a tougher critic than my father," he said, referring to former Pitt linebacker Sal Sunseri, "so it's not like getting any kind of break by calling home. But honestly, I felt better every week. I really did. I really felt like this offense was right there. And the best part of everything, for me, is that my teammates were with me. They let me know they believed in me every single day."

Worse than any of the criticism, it had become clear that his coach was losing faith. Graham complained publicly about Sunseri's implementation of his system and, after the loss to Notre Dame last week, pledged to give walk-on backup Trey Anderson a scripted third series in this game.

Funny, that never came off.

Sunseri completed his first seven passes, this despite vital guard Lucas Nix exiting early with a leg injury.

Sunseri shrugged off three consecutive drops right after that, two by sure-handed receiver Mike Shanahan, but he kept throwing downfield, once neatly over double-coverage.

Sunseri sprinted around right end with a surprising burst for a 9-yard touchdown and 7-7 tie.

Sunseri nailed H-back Hubie Graham with a bullet for the pull-away touchdown in the third quarter.

He even threw a ball away while under pressure, drawing playful mock cheers from the crowd. But they were cheers.

"I'm so proud of Tino, so proud of all our guys," Todd Graham said. "The way all of them rallied around each was something special. You should have heard them on the sideline, heard them in the locker room."

"It was just a great night for our whole football team," Sunseri said.

It's easy for Pitt to enjoy this one, especially under the circumstance. It brings a clean slate, for the team and the quarterback. It's a chance to regroup, to refocus on a Big East championship.

These Panthers aren't a great team, and Sunseri hardly is a great quarterback. But Ray Graham is developing into a great college running back, and the sum of the parts should be good enough. If South Florida is one of the class teams, then Pitt is right there. Neither looks to be at the level of West Virginia, but that's another brawl for another day.

Todd Graham smartly took the blame earlier this week for Pitt's failings, but give the coach credit: He stuck by Sunseri in the way that mattered most, by running him back out there. He also finally tailored the offense to Sunseri's strengths and, as a result, we finally saw that advertised octane. It was fast, fun and 100 percent pooch-free.

For now, though, heap it on for the quarterback. Few of us imagined he'd be part of anyone's formula for success.

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