Pitt drops Compass Bowl to Ole Miss, 38-17
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — The hits on Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri rushed toward him in relentless waves, each aimed at knocking him around like a dog shaking a rag doll.
Then the game started.
And down went Sunseri one last time as Pitt's starting quarterback, this time to Ole Miss, 38-17, on Saturday in the BBVA Compass Bowl, an outcome that secured a second consecutive losing season (6-7).
Over the past three seasons, Sunseri's critics were as vitriolic as opposing defenses were vicious. But he withstood the words better than the sacks (38 for the season, including four Saturday by a swarming Rebels defense).
Playing with a rebuilt offensive line, Pitt never found an answer to the pass rush and was dominated from start to finish by Ole Miss, a once-downtrodden program on the upswing. Rebels fans took over Legion Field like it was their own, helping to set a Compass Bowl record for attendance (59,135).
Pitt was dominated in the bowl for a second consecutive season after losing here last year to SMU, 28-6.
Sunseri, who started all of Pitt's 39 games from 2010 to '12, said it hasn't been easy for his team, which has lost 14 of 26 games since former coach Dave Wannstedt was dismissed amid much uproar two years ago.
“People don't understand how many punches we took and how we kept on rolling with it,” he said. “I think it brought us together.”
Pitt players were close, but seldom were they able to get near the Rebels, whose speed was something they were not accustomed to seeing.
“You could definitely tell it is SEC football,” said freshman running back Rushel Shell, who started in place of Ray Graham (hamstring). “Things are a tad quicker.”
Said Sunseri, who finished nine yards from Dan Marino on Pitt's all-time passing list: “They really got after us.”
The outcome was seldom in doubt after Sunseri threw an interception — his first since Sept. 15 — that set up the first of quarterback Bo Wallace's three first-half touchdown passes.
Pitt crawled to within, 14-7, in the second quarter when Sunseri found Devin Street for a 10-yard score, but Ole Miss answered with a 49-yard kickoff return by Jaylen Walton and a touchdown 63 seconds later.
Pitt's defense, forced to retool after the pre-bowl departure of defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable to North Carolina State, allowed Ole Miss to rush for 224 yards while sacking Wallace (22 for 32, 151 yards) only once.
“They beat us in almost every phase,” coach Paul Chryst said. “They were clearly the better team today. I thought the guys prepared well, but they outexecuted us.”
Sunseri operated behind an offensive line that started inexperienced Zenel Demhasaj at right tackle because right guard Arthur Doakes was suspended for violating a team rule. Matt Rotheram moved to guard after having played tackle all season.
Shell ran hard (79 yards on 25 carries), but the offense never found a rhythm. Sunseri often was hurried and completed only 16 of 32 passes.
More ammunition for his critics? So be it, Sunseri said.
The best and toughest feat he accomplished in three years as a starter, he said, was keeping his mouth shut in the face of all the criticism.
“There are always some things you wish you could say, but you have to be professional,” said Sunseri, son of longtime college coach and former Pitt All-American linebacker Sal Sunseri. “Sometimes people are going to say things you don't agree with, but that's their opinion, and you have to respect their opinion.”
But he didn't always keep quiet.
“I thank God I have the mom I have,” he said, “and I can call and vent to her instead of everybody else.”