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Starkey: 'High Octane' dud so far

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Sunday, Sept. 25, 2011

Last year, Todd Graham beat Notre Dame with Tulsa. This year, he couldn't beat Notre Dame with Pitt.

That's troubling.

A lot of what we've seen through four weeks is troubling. Pitt followed ugly wins over Buffalo and Maine with a historic meltdown at Iowa and a meager 12-point output against Notre Dame on Saturday -- a loss that featured yet another quarterback pooch punt from inside the other team's 40.

I could be mistaken, but of all the bold predictions Graham made when he was hired, I don't remember him saying quarterback Tino Sunseri would have more punts (six) than touchdown passes (four) through four games.

Before we really dig into the Panthers' low-octane, 15-12 loss, however, let us note an overriding truth: It will be forgotten fast if they beat visiting USF on Thursday in the Big East opener.

The conference is all that matters -- and Sunseri promises a different offense come Thursday.

"We're so close we can touch it," he said. "We're inches away from busting it open. Best believe we're going to come back firing Thursday."

You had to know, despite Graham's promises, that Pitt would sputter early in the season as it attempted to master a radically different offense. But not like this.

Four weeks in, the following passed for "High Octane" before a "sellout" crowd of 65,050 (many in the upper decks were celebrating Halloween early, dressed as empty yellow seats):

• A meager three points per quarter.

• A meager 3.8 yards per play (70 plays, 268 yards).

• A long completion of 18 yards.

• Six sacks.

• Too many false-start penalties to count (OK, five).

• A botched two-point attempt straight out of the Walt Harris playbook. I believe it was either a swinging gate that didn't close or a muddle huddle that didn't open. Just know that backup quarterback Trey Anderson didn't get close to the goal line. And later got the blame.

"He made a freshman mistake," Graham said.

Graham also pointed out that the linebackers were poor in coverage on Notre Dame's go-ahead drive and confirmed that Sunseri held the ball too long on some sacks. Oh, and the coach credited Notre Dame as being a "really, really good football team."

What we didn't hear was whether Pitt's coaches had anything to do with the loss. In fact, Graham "felt like we had a great plan going in."

Unspoken: If only the players had executed it.

Part of the great plan, apparently, called for Ray Graham to go wide -- waaaaay wide -- on third-and-1 from the Notre Dame 2 in the second quarter. He lost 4 yards.

Timeouts were burned early again, and no adjustments were made against 6-foot-6 tight end Tyler Eifert, who killed Pitt with four catches and the two-point conversion on Notre Dame's 11-play, 85-yard touchdown drive.

Graham shot down the notion that Pitt's attention to star receiver Michael Floyd -- held to 27 yards -- might have freed Eifert. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly obviously didn't agree, citing Pitt's doubling of Floyd as key in leaving Eifert in playmaking position.

"He got a lot of singular coverage," Kelly said. "And we found him."

No doubt, Graham went for two points way too early. By failing there, and taking only a 12-7 lead midway through the third quarter, he made it so two field goals could have beaten him. If Pitt had simply kicked the extra point, it might have been driving to win instead of tie with a late field goal.

Finally, the pooch punt. It happened on fourth-and-4 at the Notre Dame 35 with 4:30 left in the first half. When asked about the decision, Graham curtly defended it, pointing out that Sunseri put the ball at the Notre Dame 2.

Is that really the point• I thought Graham was here to "get in the left lane and put the hammer down." Relentless aggression, right• So how about letting your offense run an actual play to keep a drive alive?

Oh, and Graham said he would continue to play Anderson in the third series of every game, as he did yesterday. That seems fairly nonsensical, especially if Pitt comes out Thursday night and scores on its first two possessions.

Not that I'm making any bold predictions. Those aren't going over real well around here.




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