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Football faces key Big East battle at Connecticut




Nov. 5, 2012

Pitt (4-5, 1-3 Big East) vs. Connecticut (3-6, 0-4 Big East)

Nov. 9, 2012 • 8 p.m., ET • ESPN2

Rentschler Field (40,000/Natural Grass) • East Hartford, Conn.

Pitt Game Notes Link: UConn Game


Pitt-UConn Storylines

• Pitt closes the regular season with three consecutive Big East games, beginning with an ESPN2 nationally televised road contest at Connecticut. The Panthers are just 1-3 at UConn’s Rentschler Field, most recently dropping a 30-28 decision in 2010 that ultimately decided the league’s BCS berth.

• With a 4-5 record, the Panthers will be playing for bowl eligibility over the final month of the season. Pitt will need six victories to be eligible for an invitation to one of the Big East’s six bowls. The Panthers have been to four consecutive postseason dates since 2008.

• Pitt will be tested by the Big East’s stingiest defense when it faces Connecticut. The Huskies are yielding just 290.22 yards per game to rank first in the Big East and ninth nationally. The Panthers are averaging 418.11 yards in total offense per game.


 

 

• Senior tailback Ray Graham has rushed for more than 100 yards in each of the past two games. Last week against Notre Dame’s heralded defense, Graham had 172 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries (7.2 avg.), the best individual rushing performance against the Irish this year.

Ray Graham has 794 yards on the year and is eyeing the first 1,000-yard season of his career. In 2011, Graham was the nation’s second-leading rusher through seven games (134.14 avg.) before a right knee injury against Connecticut ended his year. He finished 2011 with 958 yards.

• Junior Devin Street is the Big East’s most productive wideout and currently leads the league in receptions (5.89 avg.) and receiving yards (81.11 avg.) per game. The last Pitt player to finish as the league leader in both categories was Larry Fitzgerald during his All-America sophomore season in 2003. 

Pitt-UConn Series Notes

This is the ninth meeting between Pitt and Connecticut in a series that dates back to 2004...the series is tied, 4-4, with Pitt winning the most recent meeting, 35-20, at Heinz Field in 2011...the last time Pitt played at Connecticut’s Rentschler Field, the Huskies triumphed, 30-28, in 2010...the 2010 game was critical to the Big East title race as Connecticut ultimately claimed the league’s BCS berth and an invitation to the Fiesta Bowl...Pitt is just 1-3 at Rentschler Field, the lone victory coming in 2008 (34-10)...Pitt and Connecticut first met during the 2004 season when the Huskies were in their first year as a Big East football member...Connecticut won that inaugural matchup, 29-17, at Rentschler Field...the last time the Panthers shut out an opponent came in 2005 against Connecticut, a 24-0 blanking at Heinz Field...the ‘05 game also marked the Huskies’ first visit to Pittsburgh...the 2012 encounter marks Paul Chryst’s first as a head coach against Connecticut...second-year Connecticut head coach Paul Pasqualoni is 12-3 all-time against Pitt...while his Huskies lost to the Panthers last year, Pasqualoni was 12-2 against Pitt as head coach at Syracuse from 1991-2004...Pitt did, however, win two of its final three games against Pasqualoni’s Orange, including the 2002 and 2003 affairs.

Pitt-UConn Series in Brief

Series Began: 2004

Series Overall: Series tied 4-4

Big East Series: Series tied 4-4

At Pittsburgh: Pitt leads 3-1

At Connecticut: UConn leads 3-1

At Neutral Sites: DNA

Last Meeting: Oct. 26, 2011 (Pitt 35, UConn 20)

Last Meeting at UConn: Nov. 11, 2010 (UConn 30, Pitt 28)

Current Streak: Pitt has won 1

Longest Pitt Series Win Streak: 2 games (2008-09)

Longest UConn Series Win Streak: 2 games (2006-07)

Largest Pitt Margin of Victory: 24 points (24-0, 2005; 34-10, 2008)

Largest UConn Margin of Victory: 20 points (34-14, 2007)


Pitt-Connecticut Broadcast Information

Television • ESPN2

Carter Blackburn, play-by-play

Rod Gilmore, analyst

Jemele Hill, reporter

Pitt Radio • Sportsradio 93.7 The Fan & the Pitt IMG Sports Network

Bill Hillgrove, play-by-play

Pat Bostick, analyst         

Gregg Giannotti, reporter

Internet Audio • Panthers All-Access

PittsburghPanthers.com

SiriusXM Satellite Radio

Sirius Channel 128, XM Channel 190


Pitt Team Notes

Eyeing Bowl Eligibility

Pitt will be working on its bowl resume over the final month of the season. With a 4-5 record, the Panthers need two more wins to be eligible for one of the Big East’s six postseason slots. Since 2000, the Panthers have advanced to nine bowl games. Pitt went to five consecutive bowls from 2000-04. After failing to qualify for three consecutive years (2005-07), the Panthers have been to a bowl each of the past four seasons. 

Turnover Margin

Pitt ranks 19th nationally and third in the Big East in turnover margin. The Panthers are plus-7 in the turnover department (0.78 margin per game), forcing 14 and only losing seven. 

Fresh Faces

Through nine games, Pitt has had four true freshmen see action: tight end J.P. Holtz, defensive lineman Darryl Render, tailback Rushel Shell and cornerback Jahmahl Pardner. Holtz has played in all nine games, starting six. He has six receptions for 107 yards (17.8 avg.) and two touchdowns on the year. Shell is Pitt’s second-leading rusher with 443 yards and four TDs on 88 carries (5.0 avg.) in eight games played. Render has played in seven contests with one start, and has five tackles, 1.5 TFLs and one PBU on the season. Pardner had been playing a significant role as a nickel back and reserve cornerback through the first three games but suffered a left ACL injury against Virginia Tech and will be out for the season. He is expected to receive a medical redshirt.

2012 Team Captains Selected

Pitt has selected its team captains for the 2012 season. They are senior center Ryan Turnley, senior wide receiver Mike Shanahan, senior wide receiver Cameron Saddler, senior safety Jarred Holley and junior defensive tackle Aaron Donald. 

Golden Graham

Senior running back Ray Graham is coming off one of the finest performances of his career. Facing the heralded Notre Dame defense last week, Graham rushed for 172 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries (7.2 avg.). Notre Dame entered the game ranked ninth nationally in rushing defense, yielding just 95.25 yards on the ground. Graham’s first carry of the game was a 55-yard burst into the heart of the Notre Dame defense. It was the longest offensive play given up by the Irish this season. Later in the second quarter, he scooted around the right end for a 16-yard touchdown run — the first rushing TD by an opposing running back against the Irish this year.

Graham’s Century Rushing Games

Ray Graham’s 172-yard rushing effort against Notre Dame on Nov. 3 marked his third 100-yard game of the season and 10th of his career. 

Ray on the Career Lists

Ray Graham will finish his career as one of the most productive running backs in school history. He currently ranks second in all-purpose yards (4,624), fourth in rushing (3,023) and 10th in scoring (198 points).

Tino on a Roll

Senior quarterback Tino Sunseri has played exceptionally over the past seven games. During that stretch Sunseri has completed 70% of his passes for 1,846 yards (263.7 yards per game) and 12 touchdowns with only one interception.  

Efficiency Excellence

Tino Sunseri ranks 15th nationally and second in the Big East in pass efficiency with an impressive 160.34 rating. On the year he has completed 181-of-263 passes (69%) for 2,363 yards and 14 touchdowns with just two interceptions. As a junior, Sunseri ranked 82nd nationally in pass efficiency (124.09), completing 64% of his passes (247 of 385) for 2,616 yards with 10 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.

172 Passes and Counting

Tino Sunseri has an active streak of 172 pass attempts without an interception. His last INT came at the 14:13 mark of the fourth quarter in Pitt’s 35-17 victory over Virginia Tech. That interception came at the Pitt 36 with the Panthers holding a 28-17 lead. Pitt’s defense rose to the occasion, forcing a three-and-out. On their next possession, the Panthers drove 88 yards for the game-clinching touchdown, a six-yard Sunseri pass to Mike Shanahan. Sunseri’s only other INT this season came in the second game of the year at Cincinnati. 

Terrific on Turnovers

Pitt ranks third nationally (tied) and first in the Big East in fewest turnovers lost. The Panthers have only given away seven turnovers this season (two interceptions and five fumbles). Pitt is also tied for third nationally (first in the Big East) in fewest interceptions thrown and tied for 20th nationally (third in the Big East) in fewest fumbles lost.

Seasoned Signal Caller

Tino Sunseri has started 35 consecutive games dating back to the 2010 season opener at Utah. Sunseri’s starting streak is the longest by a Pitt quarterback since Tyler Palko made 35 consecutive starts from 2004-06. Palko started every single game for the Panthers during those three seasons.

Alex Van Pelt holds the school record for consecutive games started as well as total starting assignments by a Pitt quarterback. Van Pelt started every game during his four-year career (46 starts from 1989-92). He also is the school’s career leader in passing yards (11,267) and total offense (11,148).

Sunseri ranks fourth at Pitt in both career passing yards (7,665) and career total offense (7,757). 

Devin Dazzles

Junior wide receiver Devin Street is the Big East’s most productive wideout, averaging a league-best 5.89 receptions and 81.11 receiving yards per game. On the year, Street has 53 catches for 730 yards (13.8 avg.) and four touchdowns.

A Pitt player has led the Big East in receptions four times in the history of the conference. Larry Fitzgerald was the last to accomplish the feat during his 2003 All-America season when he averaged 7.1 catches per game. 

A Pitt player has led the Big East in receiving yards nine times, the most recent coming in 2005 when two-time all-conference receiver Greg Lee averaged 87.5 yards per contest.

Fitzgerald was the last Pitt player to lead the Big East in both categories in the same season (2003).

Going over 100

Devin Street had a career-high 140 receiving yards on six catches in Pitt’s 47-17 victory over Temple on Oct. 27. It was Street’s third 100-yard receiving performance of the year. He previously had 111 yards on a career-high 11 catches vs. Louisville, and 130 yards on 10 receptions at Syracuse.

The last Pitt player to record more than three 100-yard receiving games in a season was Jon Baldwin, who had seven 100-yard games in 2009. Baldwin totaled 1,111 yards that year on 57 catches. He went on to be a 2011 first-round draft pick of the Kansas City Chiefs. 

Sticky Fingers

Mike Shanahan and Devin Street rank among the most prolific pass catchers in Pitt history as evidenced by the school’s career lists for receptions and receiving yards. Shanahan is fifth all-time in receptions (138) and ninth in receiving yards (1,962). Street has 131 catches to rank eighth (tied) and is 10th in career receiving yards with 1,802.

A Winning Shell Game

Freshman tailback Rushel Shell was a key offensive catalyst in Pitt’s 35-17 win over Virginia Tech by rushing for 157 yards on 23 attempts, an impressive 6.8-yard average. It is the highest single-game rushing total by a Big East freshman this season. Shell is the first Pitt freshman to rush for 100 yards in a game since Dion Lewis had 159 against North Carolina in the Meineke Car Care Bowl on Dec. 26, 2009. Pitt defeated the Tar Heels, 19-17. 

O-Line Stability

Pitt has enjoyed much more stability on its offensive front this season compared to last year. In 2011, due to a myriad of injuries, Pitt was forced to shuffle eight different starting offensive line combinations in 13 games.

In 2012, Pitt fielded the same starting five on its offensive front the first eight games of the year. With junior guard Ryan Schlieper’s season-ending right foot injury against Temple Oct. 27, sophomore Arthur Doakes entered the starting lineup for the Nov. 3 Notre Dame contest.

The season-long fixtures on the offensive line have been junior Cory King at left tackle, senior Chris Jacobson at left guard, senior Ryan Turnley at center and sophomore Matt Rotheram at right tackle.

Surpassing 600

Pitt rolled up 626 yards in total offense (397 passing, 229 rushing) against Gardner-Webb, the Panthers’ highest single-game production since 1997 when they had 645 yards (470 passing, 175 rushing) in a double-overtime victory at Rutgers (55-48). The Gardner-Webb contest marked Pitt’s highest total offense in a regulation game since 1995 when it compiled a school-record 648 yards (333 passing, 315 rushing) in a 66-30 win over Eastern Michigan.

Historic Two-Game Production

In its back-to-back September victories, Pitt produced a combined 1,163 yards in total offense (626 vs. Gardner-Webb and 537 vs. Virginia Tech). This two-game total set a school record for offensive output in consecutive games. The prior mark was 1,154 set in 1992. That season, Pitt had 558 yards vs. Rutgers followed by a 596-yard game vs. Minnesota.

Defensive Improvement

Pitt’s defense has improved remarkably since the opening two games of the season when the Panthers started 0-2 and gave up an average of 422.5 yards in those two losses. Since that time, Pitt has rebounded to win four of its next seven games while giving up an average of only 342.3 yards in the process. (Of note: Pitt’s averages include a triple-overtime game at Notre Dame Nov. 3.)            

Super Scoring “D”

Perhaps Pitt’s most impressive improvement has been in scoring defense. In its opening two losses, Pitt gave up an average of 32.5 points. Over the past seven games, that average has been reduced to 19.7. (During this current seven-game stretch, Pitt surrendered three touchdowns on returns — two on fumbles and one on a punt. Taking out those 21 points, the 19.7 scoring average drops to 16.7.)

In nine total games this year, Pitt is yielding 22.56 points to rank 38th nationally and fifth in the Big East. 

Turnovers are Key

Pitt is 3-1 this season when forcing multiple turnovers in a game. In contrast, the Panthers are 1-4 when failing to generate more than one turnover.

In its 35-17 win over No. 13 Virginia Tech, Pitt forced a season-high four turnovers, including three interceptions of highly regarded Hokies quarterback Logan Thomas. Junior free safety Jason Hendricks had two picks while senior strong safety Jarred Holley had the other.

Additionally, sophomore linebacker Eric Williams had Pitt’s first fumble recovery of the season. Williams recovered a fumble (forced by redshirt freshman defensive end Devin Cook) at the Virginia Tech 10 in the second quarter. Ray Graham rushed for a five-yard TD two plays later to give Pitt a 21-0 lead.

The Panthers forced three more turnovers in their 55-10 win over Gardner-Webb the following week. Hendricks had his third interception of the year, while senior defensive end Shayne Hale and senior linebacker Joe Trebitz both had fumble recoveries.

In a 47-17 rout of Temple, the Panthers gained two turnovers — fumble recoveries by Eric Williams and redshirt freshman cornerback Lafayette Pitts.

Despite forcing three turnovers at Notre Dame (two interceptions and a fumble recovery), the Panthers fell to the No. 4 Irish, 29-26, in triple overtime — the only time this season when Pitt has lost while forcing multiple turnovers.

Sack Attack

The Pitt defense has recorded at least one quarterback sack in 33 of the past 34 games.

The Panthers had a streak of 25 consecutive games with a sack snapped against Youngstown State on Sept. 1. The YSU contest marked the first time Pitt had been held without a sack since Sept. 2, 2010, when they lost in overtime at Utah (27-24).

Entering the Nov. 9 Connecticut game, Pitt has 17 sacks on the season, led by junior defensive tackle Aaron Donald’s 3.5.

Hendricks Leads Air Defense

Coming off an abbreviated 2011 campaign due to a shoulder injury, junior safety Jason Hendricks has bounced back in top form this season. Hendricks leads Pitt with four interceptions. His average of 0.44 INTs per game ranks first in the Big East and 12th (tied) nationally.

Nearly Perfect on PATs

Since the opening of the 2006 season, Pitt has been virtually flawless on its extra-point kicks. The Panthers have missed only three PAT kicks over this current stretch (261 of 264, .989). During his two seasons as Pitt’s starting placekicker, senior Kevin Harper has gone 62-of-63 in PAT kicks (.984). Harper is 30-of-30 this year.

Harper Paces Big East

Kevin Harper leads the Big East and ranks 14th nationally (tied) with an average of 1.56 field goals per game. Harper has made 14-of-20 field goals this year (.700) with a season-long of 45 (made at Buffalo). He has made eight of his past nine attempts and 10 of his last 12. Harper is also one of only two full-time kickers in the Big East to make all of their extra-point kicks (minimum 20 attempts) this season (30 of 30). Syracuse’s Ross Krautman is the other (24 of 24).

Productive Rookie Returner

Redshirt freshman cornerback Lafayette Pitts is not only a starter on defense but also an impact kickoff return man. Pitts is averaging 27.27 yards per return to lead the Big East and rank 19th nationally. He had a season-long 64-yard kick return against Gardner-Webb. As a team, the Panthers rank 22nd nationally and third in the Big East in kick returns with a 24.94 average.

Panther Block Party

In the second quarter of the Oct. 13 Louisville contest, sophomore linebacker Todd Thomas blocked a punt and recovered it in the end zone for a touchdown, giving Pitt a 14-7 lead. It was Pitt’s first blocked punt for a TD since Oct. 15, 2011, when Andrew Taglianetti’s block was returned 10 yards for a score by Antwuan Reed vs. Utah. Pitt has blocked 42 kicks dating back to the 2000 season. During that stretch Taglianetti, a senior safety, leads all Panthers with a school-record six blocks.


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