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Consistent offense leads Panthers into USF with shot at bowl

| Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2012, 10:26 p.m.
Pitt reciever Mike Shanahan lays out for a first quarter catch behind Virginia Tech's Detrick Bonner at Heinz Field Sept. 15, 2012. Chaz Palla | Tribune Review

Two years ago, Pitt officials were focused on jazzing up their football program after six seasons of the conservative, play-not-to-lose style of coach Dave Wannstedt.

Enter Todd Graham, with his speed-based offense and enough brass to think it actually would work at Pitt. It didn't, and Pitt ended the 2011 season ranked 77th in passing and 88th in total offense among 120 FBS schools. Graham ended up at Arizona State.

Who knew that Paul Chryst, the understated Wisconsin offensive coordinator who was a candidate in the search that yielded Graham, would be the coach to fix things?

With the final game of the regular season Saturday at South Florida, Pitt (5-6, 2-4 Big East) is not winning with any more regularity than it did last year, but the offense is more productive, less mistake-prone and more protective of the quarterback.

Pitt has the nation's 40th-ranked passing game (an average of 267.7 ypg) while sitting 60th in total offense (407.1). Sacks fell from 63 to 30 with more defined blocking schemes under first-year line coach Jim Hueber.

In two fewer games, quarterback Tino Sunseri has thrown for 2,892 yards and 18 touchdowns ­— 276 more yards and eight more scores than last year. His completion percentage improved from 64.2 to 65.8. After averaging nearly an interception per game last year, Sunseri has thrown two this season and none in the past 8 14 games.

Much of the success can be attributed to the additional year of experience for Sunseri and his three top wide receivers — Devin Street, Mike Shanahan and Cam Saddler. But freshman tight end J.P. Holtz leads the team in yards per catch (16.9).

Shanahan's touchdown against Rutgers was a good example of how pass catchers are getting open more often this season.

“It was just a double move,” he said. “All season, we have been showing that formation and I have been running just a slant (to the inside). I gave it a slant and go (to the outside), and the cornerback bit pretty hard on the inside.”

The result of the newly conceived route was Shanahan getting wide open in the end zone for Pitt's first touchdown in a 27-6 victory.

“A lot of the credit has to be given to the coaches,” he said. “They are great offensive minds and Tino's been doing a great job of getting us the ball.”

Shanahan, a fifth-year senior, said he hopes to prolong his football career into the NFL, and he has the frame (6-foot-5, 225 pounds) and statistics (49 receptions, 810 yards, five TDs) that will attract scouts. He also has improved over the past year after recording only 39 catches for 493 yards and four scores in 2011.

Shanahan said he has benefited from the experience of wide receivers coach Bobby Engram, a former Penn State star who played 14 seasons in the NFL.

“He is the kind of coach you don't want to disappoint,” Shanahan said. “He tells you what to do and it's on you to go out and execute.”

Note: Pitt is four short of the 85-man scholarship limit after losing two transfers and suspending defensive back Steve Williams on Monday. With 16 seniors leaving the program, Pitt can add 20 recruits in the Class of 2013, if the roster remains intact until February. So far, 19 high school seniors have verbally committed.

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

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