After a week of practice where quarterback Tino Sunseri was told he needed to perform better, the redshirt sophomore showed progression in a 44-17 win against Florida International.
Sunseri was an efficient 15-of-23 passing for 169 yards and a touchdown. It was how he finished, though, that was most impressive, completing 13 of his last 14 passes for 150 yards in a stretch that spanned from the last drive of the first half to the end of the game.
“There was a lot of pressure on him this week,” Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said after the game. “He knew he had to perform. I think he had a great week of practice. Tino did an outstanding job of preparing himself and he played that way once he got in to the groove a little bit.
“I liked how he moved around in the pocket and made a few plays (Saturday). He played smart, he protected the ball, he didn’t turn it over. Those are things that you have to do to give yourself a chance to win.”
In his impressive stretch, Sunseri might have found his go-to receiver — Mike Shanahan. When tied with FIU, 10-10, with 1:01 left in the first half, Sunseri connected with Shanahan on passes of 18 and 28 yards to drive Pitt from its own 28 to the FIU 21.
Kicker Dan Hutchins made a 38-field goal to put the Panthers ahead 13-10 — a lead they never surrendered.
Sunseri also found Shanahan for a gain of 24 yards, which led to his touchdown pass to fullback Henry Hynoski. That gave the Panthers a 23-10 lead.
“I’ve been doing a lot of thinking this week of understanding the primary receiver and understanding where the check-downs are,” Sunseri said after the game. “That’s what I didn’t think I did a good job of last week (in practice), is understanding where the check-downs were and making sure that I wasn’t forcing stuff down the field.”
Possibly Sunseri’s most impressive play came early in the fourth quarter with the Panthers pinned inside their 10 and leading just 23-17. On third-and-13, Sunseri went through all of his reads and eventually found running back Ray Graham, who fought for 15 yards and a Pitt first down.
Graham took the very next play 79 yards for a touchdown and a 30-17 Pitt lead.
“I was supposed to get out, but I saw somebody blitzing and I came in to help (with) the blitz,” Graham said. “I heard Tino say, ‘Ray! Ray!’ So I just tried to get out. I didn’t even know where I was going. I just was running just to get the ball to get open. From there I just tried to make whatever happened to get the first down.”
Plays like that are what a team needs from its starting quarterback in close games, and Dave Wannstedt said it was a great sign of Sunseri’s improvement.
“The one thing he did do is, when he had pressure on him, he didn’t just tuck the ball and run,” Wannstedt said. “He moved out of the pocket. The one third down and 15, the check-down that he threw to Ray Graham, was a huge play in the game.
“He was under pressure, he moved to the right, he looked downfield for a couple of our receivers, didn’t see anybody that he was comfortable with coverage-wise so he hit the check-down. I know he wouldn’t have done that two weeks ago. He would’ve kept the ball and tried running for the first down and probably come up short and we’d have been punting.”
Sunseri said learning his progressions and finding the talent he has around him – Jon Baldwin, Shanahan, Graham, Dion Lewis and others – is exactly what he’s trying to do.
“It just goes to show you that if you check the ball down, you get it to your playmakers, sometimes they can make the first and sometimes they won’t,” Sunseri said. “Punting after a third down completion is OK. That’s what I took in to today’s game, is just making sure I got the ball out of my hands.”
Chris Gates | Area 4-1-Zoo Blog