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Starkey: Defiant Sunseri leads Pitt

| Sunday, Sept. 16, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri throws against Virginia Techin the first quarter at Heinz Field Sept. 15, 2012. Chaz Palla | Tribune Review

The most heavily criticized athlete in Pittsburgh sports walked into the postgame interview room on crutches and at times looked like he wanted to swing one of them at his questioners.

Defiant would be too light a word to describe quarterback Tino Sunseri's demeanor after Pitt's stunning 35-17 victory over No. 13 Virginia Tech on Saturday.

Asked to describe his feelings regarding perhaps the most impressive victory of his career, Sunseri snapped, “I'm just ready to get out of here and go watch my dad (Tennessee defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri) play.”

Asked how he deals with the constant and largely unflattering public scrutiny, he said, “I don't know. I just do my job.”

He cut off a follow-up question, flashed his steely brown eyes and bit off the same five words: “I just do my job.”

What kind of injury did he sustain?

“I'm fine.”

What happened on the play on which he was injured?

“I'm fine.”

And so it went.

Really, though, who could blame Sunseri if he has a giant chip on his shoulder pads? He has endured a ridiculous amount of criticism. The mere mention of his name seems to get people's blood boiling.

A popular topic going into the game was whether it might be Sunseri's last as starter. It figured that if coach Paul Chryst was going to make a change, especially if he intended to use freshman Chad Voytik, then next Saturday's game against Gardner-Webb would have been the logical time.

Well, forget that.

Sunseri cracked his critics with a figurative crutch to the face, completing 19 of 28 attempts for 283 yards and three touchdowns. He thoroughly outshone his celebrated counterpart, Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas.

Even the Hokies were surprised with Sunseri's newfound accuracy on deep throws. The first of those came on a telling opening series, when he absorbed a huge hit on third-and-7 and completed a 33-yard pass to a leaping Devin Street.

That was followed a few series later by an on-the-fingertips 40-yard completion to Mike Shanahan down the left sideline.

Virginia Tech safety Kyshoen Jarrett answered frankly when a reporter wondered if the Hokies believed Sunseri could make plays like that down the field.

“Honestly? No,” Jarrett said.

Sunseri's numbers conveyed only part of the story. Teammates said he inspired them with his toughness. He was body slammed on one play and later sustained a leg injury on one of his few errant passes — an early fourth-quarter interception.

He didn't miss a snap, limping through the rest of the game.

“Really, that's what he is: a tough player,” Shanahan said. “Whenever we see him do that, having all that faith and will, that gets us going.”

Chryst downplayed the public criticism of Sunseri, to the point where you'd think the coach didn't know it existed. His take on Sunseri's performance was a lot more believable: “He's good enough if he just plays within himself.”

Sunseri's teammates admire the way he deals with the abuse.

“I don't think that's deserved for him or anybody, really,” Shanahan said. “It kind of makes me upset to hear it. He does a great job with it. I've never seen it affect him in a way where we notice in practice or a game.”

This was Pitt's most surprising victory since the legendary 13-9 win five years ago at West Virginia. Not just because of the final score but because of the sheer dominance the Panthers displayed in rolling up 537 yards to Virginia Tech's 324.

Suddenly, a season that appeared to be careening toward 2-10 has promise.

Suddenly, an embattled quarterback who appeared to be losing his grip on the job has new life — and a giant chip on his shoulder.

That's not a bad thing.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 “The Fan.” His columns appear Thursdays and Sundays. He can be reached at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

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