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Pitt needs better team play to turn it around

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Chaz Palla | Tribune Review
Pitt's Aaron Donald plays against Louisville on October 2012 at Heinz Field.

A look at Pitt's final six games:

At Buffalo, Saturday — A nonconference game against a struggling team may ease some growing pains, but it won't cure many problems. A decisive victory could generate momentum for the stretch run, though.

Temple, Oct. 27 — The Owls weren't good enough for the Big East and were booted in 2004. Now they're back and 2-0, but their passing game and defense are last in the conference.

At Notre Dame, Nov. 3 — Pitt gets a little lucky, meeting the Irish a week after they play a difficult, prime-time game at No. 9 Oklahoma. Better block linebacker Manti Te'o, though, with two or three guys.

At Connecticut, Nov. 9 — The Huskies play good defense, giving up 21 or fewer points in all but one game. But the offense is unproductive and sloppy (16 turnovers in seven games) — just what Pitt's young defense needs.

Rutgers, Nov. 24 — You could make a case that the Scarlet Knights represent Pitt's toughest opponent. And after Jawan Jamison runs through the Panthers' defense, who would argue?

At South Florida, Dec. 1 — This game may present an interesting psychological study, especially if Pitt comes in 4-7 with nothing at stake. It's also a game the Panthers can win. USF has lost four in a row.

Evaluating Pitt by position after the first six games of this season:

Quarterbacks: B- — Generally fans shrug their shoulders at Tino Sunseri's statistics. They are more interested in Pitt's record since 2010 (16-16) and Sunseri's failure to make plays in close games. That's fair, but throwing only two interceptions in 189 attempts is hard to do.

Running backs: B- — Ray Graham's national fall from No. 2 to No. 73 in rushing can be traced to his knee injury and Rushel Shell's emergence. Shell's skill is his ability to dish out punishment while gaining yards.

Receivers/tight ends: B — Reliable hands and the ability to get open make Devin Street and Mike Shanahan the best pair of pass catchers in the Big East. Tight ends Hubie Graham and Drew Carswell are fighting injuries, but freshman J.P. Holtz carries the necessary toughness in a solid frame.

Offensive line: C — Five durable, hard-working starters have taken every snap with mixed results. Holes in the defense close as often as they open. Sunseri needs a cleaner pocket after getting sacked 18 times, but 20 touchdowns don't happen by accident.

Defensive line: D — Pitt needs to figure a way to free Aaron Donald from constant double-teams after his sack total dropped from 11 last season to one. Tyrone Ezell, Bryan Murphy and T.J. Clemmings are first-year starters with more potential than production.

Linebackers: D — Pitt lacks big plays at this position — 21⁄2 sacks just aren't enough — and an average of 4.2 yards allowed per run keeps the chains moving for the other team. Todd Thomas' athleticism will help now that he says his knee problems are behind him.

Defensive backs: B- — There may not be a smarter safety in the Big East than senior Jarred Holley, who is always around the football. Cornerback K'Waun Williams isn't afraid to play hurt.

Special teams: D — Point a finger at the punt coverage (TD vs. Virginia Tech and a 22.3-yard average allowed), poor protection for punter Matt Yoklic against Louisville and kicker Kevin Harper's five missed field goals in 11 tries.

Coaching: B- — The grade is marked down simply due to the 2-4 record. But coach Paul Chryst's more important job is stabilizing the football program for the future. He's done that well — with a long way to go.

Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2012, 10:58 p.m.

Big bodies attacking him two at a time have turned Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald into a defiant young man.

With hopes for a winning season wilting and critics sharpening their verbal arrows, Donald said the only way for Pitt to recover from its 2-4 start is to do it as a team.

“There are going to be people talking down, trying to always say something (bad) about us as a team,” he said, “but we just have to stick together.”

Donald was short on specifics, but he wouldn't be far off by suggesting the following:

• Eliminate mistakes with better focus from offense, defense and special teams.

• Force the opponent into errors by generating pressure with an improved pass rush that could lead to turnovers.

• Achieve more consistent play on the offensive line to keep the attack multidimensional.

Pitt has reached the midway point in the season with only two victories for just the third time in the past 11 years, and the schedule gets no easier the rest of the way. Pitt played two teams in the first half that are undefeated (Cincinnati and Louisville), and there are two more to come (Notre Dame and Rutgers).

The Panthers continue to be plagued by errors that appear correctable but resurfaced during the current two-game losing streak.

“Mental mistakes, communication,” Donald said. “Stuff that can be fixed.”

Giving up 45 points to a good — but not a great — Louisville team can't be tolerated. The defense must get better, a task made more difficult with linebackers Shane Gordon and Manny Williams hobbled by leg injuries. The return of outside linebacker Todd Thomas from a knee injury may help improve a defense that has recorded only one turnover in its four losses. Sacking the quarterback at a better rate than 1.6 per game also wouldn't hurt.

Also, Pitt can't afford ill-timed penalties, especially those nagging false starts (11 in six games). Rutgers, the No. 15 team in the BCS standings, is last in the Big East with 436 yards in penalties, but it is talented enough to compensate in other areas. Pitt (354) has no such luxury and needs clean execution and sharper decision-making from players and coaches.

Donald, whose reputation has drawn double-team blocking that has reduced his effectiveness, said it's time for Pitt to take control.

“We can't change those four losses,” he said, “but we can change those two wins to three, four, five.”

Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can reached at or 412-320-7997.

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