Jan. 6, 2012
by Pat Bostick
With kickoff in less than 24 hours, the Panthers held a walkthrough today at Legion Field to cap its final preparations for Saturday's BBVA Compass Bowl contest against SMU. The game features some intriguing matchups, with plenty of surrounding storylines and anecdotes.
Chief among them, both teams will face off without their star running backs. The Panthers will play their fifth consecutive game without the dynamic Ray Graham, whose 939 rushing yards accounted for 85 percent of Pitt's rushing yardage after seven games. Heading into the Panthers' eighth game of the year against Connecticut, Graham's rushing total stood as the second best seven-game start in school history (trailing only the legendary Tony Dorsett, who had over 1,000 yards seven games into his 1976 Heisman Trophy campaign.) Graham suffered a right knee injury in the first quarter of that game. He finished the year with 958 rushing yards on 164 carries, scoring nine touchdowns. He was also a dangerous receiving threat, reeling in 30 receptions for 200 yards. Despite missing the last four games of the regular season, Graham was still a first team All-Big East selection.
SMU will square off against Pitt without their workhorse running back Zach Line. Line garnered first team All-Conference USA despite missing SMU's last two regular-season games. In 2010, Line's 1,494 rushing yards were the second best single-season total in school history. Only Hall-of-Famer Eric Dickerson's 1,617 yards in 1982 topped Line's total. Interestingly enough, Dickerson's record-setting year came the same season his Mustangs faced off against the Dan Marino-led Pitt Panthers in the Cotton Bowl. Dickerson and the Mustangs won that game, Marino's last as a Pitt Panther, 7-3. Before a toe injury sidelined him prior to the Houston game, Line was chasing another one of Dickerson's records. His 17 touchdowns this season were only two short of breaking Dickerson's single-season record of 19, which he totaled in 1981.
Without the services of both of these talented ball carriers, both teams have had to rely more on the play of their quarterbacks. Pitt's Tino Sunseri needs 19 completions to tie Rod Rutherford for the single-season record for pass completions (247). With just 133 yards passing against SMU, Sunseri would tie Bill Stull for sixth on Pitt's career passing yardage list. He also needs 200 yards to tie Stull for the 10th best single-season passing yardage in school history. Stull passed for a career-best 2,633 yards in 2009.
SMU quarterback J.J. McDermott has been the beneficiary of Coach June Jones' pass-happy offense this season, his first as a starter. The New Mexico State on transfer has completed 256 of his 430 pass attempts for 3,182 yards. That total is good for second on SMU's single-season passing yardage list. His most frequented target is slot receiver Cole Beasley. Beasley has 79 catches (7.2 a game) for 954 yards and two touchdowns. A three-year starter, his 248 career receptions are good enough for second on SMU's career receptions list behind current Pittsburgh Steeler Emmanuel Sanders, who tallied 285 during his impressive career. McDermott's top receiver, in terms of yardage and touchdowns, is Darius Johnson. Johnson has 998 yards and seven touchdowns on 72 catches. The trio will face a much improved Pitt secondary, however. After a rough start to the season, Pitt's pass coverage has only allowed an average of 193 passing yards per game over the last seven contests.
A passing attack is only as good as the protection given to the passer, however, and SMU has a veteran offensive line in front of McDermott. SMU's offensive line, the most experienced in all of college football with 218 combined starts, will be put to the test against an explosive Pitt pass rush. The Mustangs yield only 2.25 sacks per contest, while the Panthers average 3.3 sacks a game. SMU's heralded left tackle Kelvin Beachum will have his hands full with Aaron Donald and Brandon Lindsey. Donald has 10 sacks on the season, while Lindsey has 8.5 sacks this year. With a sack against the Mustangs, Lindsey would tally 23.5 sacks for his career and tie Bryan Knight for sixth on Pitt's all-time list.
Saturday's contest should be an exciting one. The days leading up to the bowl game are always fun, but there simply is nothing like game day. Playing on a nationally televised stage, the Panthers would like nothing more than to send their seniors off the right way and kick start 2012 with a bang. That means boarding the flight back to Pittsburgh with a bowl trophy in hand.
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