Pitt football notebook: Healthy again, LB Thomas makes impact
Todd Thomas couldn't believe his eyes.
Nothing stood between him and his first blocked punt, and the linebacker from Beaver Falls didn't let the opportunity pass.
Thomas blocked the punt by Louisville's Ryan Johnson, knocking it like someone might spike a volleyball — 35 yards into the end zone. He sprinted on his surgically repaired left knee and recovered the ball for a touchdown.
The score gave Pitt a 14-7 lead early in the second quarter, but it wasn't nearly enough in a 45-35 Big East loss to Louisville on Saturday at Heinz Field.
But it did mark a milestone in Thomas' return from January knee surgery.
“The knee is definitely back,” he said. “It feels good.”
The play was designed for Thomas and Mike Shanahan to rush the punter, who was protected by three blockers.
“As I get my takeoff, there are three up men back there, two on the left, one on the right,” Thomas said. “I'm running through, and Mike Shanahan comes with me, and the two (on the left) just take (Shanahan).”
That left an open avenue for Thomas, who easily overpowered the remaining blocker.
“I am like, ‘This is unreal. I'm not coming this free,'” he said. “Once I got through, I threw my hands up. I don't think I had any technique. Plus, the run was long. I'm looking around, ‘Where's the ball?' ”
It was the first collegiate touchdown for Thomas, a redshirt sophomore, and Pitt's 42nd blocked punt since 2000.
“It felt good to help the team out,” he said.
Thomas was used in several passing-down situations against Louisville in only his second game of the season. He also recorded a tackle and helped put pressure on quarterback Teddy Bridgewater later in the second quarter, leading to a sack by defensive tackle Tyrone Ezell and safety Ray Vinopal.
Pitt lost linebackers Shane Gordon (ankle) and Manny Williams (leg).
Dan Mason replaced Gordon, played most of the game and recorded six tackles, second on the team. Nicholas Grigsby entered the game for Williams in the fourth quarter and had one tackle.
Freshman running back Rushel Shell didn't start, but he carried 18 times for 96 yards, and starter Ray Graham, who did not suffer a setback on his surgically repaired right knee, ran six times for 20 yards. … Graham had 71 all-purpose yards, including 51 receiving, to move into second place on Pitt's all-time list with 4,173. He passed Gibby Welch (4,108 from 1925-27). Tony Dorsett holds the mark at 7,117.
By the numbers
Receiver Devin Street recorded his second consecutive game of double-digit receptions and more than 100 yards, catching 11 for 111. He is tied with Steve Moyer (1969-71) for 13th place on Pitt's all-time receptions list (117). … Shanahan had 74 receiving yards, giving him 1,818 to rank ninth all–time after passing Henry Tuten (1987-89).
Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7997.