Team: Pittsburgh Panthers
Postseason: 38-17 BBVA Compass Bowl loss to Ole Miss
Top Offensive Performer: Ray Graham, RB
Top Defensive Performer: Aaron Donald, DT
For Pitt’s seniors, 2012 was the end of a three-year battle with uncertainty and mediocrity. Paul Chryst was their third head coach in as many years, and they also made their third consecutive trip to Birmingham’s BBVA Compass Bowl (not the most prestigious of honors college football has to offer). Rather than looking back at their time with joy and gratitude, it’s more likely these players are thankful to leave all the constant upheaval behind — no offense to Pitt, of course.
And it’s tough to capture those consistency issues better than you can by examining Pitt’s offensive attack — and sometimes lack thereof. Unlike previous years, the Panthers actually found themselves most successful this season when passing the ball with competence; or at least so long as they also ran it well. Which gets to the heart of the issue for Pittsburgh. There are no trends with this offense you can really dig deeply into to determine how they lost seven games. Quarterback Tino Sunseri threw for 21 touchdowns versus just three INTs. He threw for 200 yards or more 10 different times, and in those games, the team was 5-5. Running back Ray Graham rushed for 100 yards or more four different times, and in those games Pitt was just 2-2. Balanced or not, run or pass, it just never seemed like the Panthers could find a consistent rhythm on offense. Though when they did — in those rare moments of clarity — this team was one of the country’s toughest to slow down. Six times they scored 27 or more points (5-1 record), moving the ball with ease and seemingly scoring at will. Unfortunately, that success was always fleeting, resulting in a wildly up-and-down campaign that saw them alternate two wins and two losses all year long (up until the final loss against Ole Miss, which occurred following two wins).
Defensively, Pitt took some time to shake off the summer rust, being outscored 65-27 over the course of the first two games (both losses). But for the remainder of the year, just two opponents would get to 30 points (Ole Miss and Louisville) and the Panthers held seven different opponents to 20 points or less (including three that failed to score more than six apiece). On the year, Pittsburgh finished 17th in the nation in total defense (allowing just 330 yards per game), including 32nd against the run and 20th against the pass. Their 33 touchdowns allowed were also top 20 in the country, much of which was due in part to their plus-12 turnover margin. While Pitt certainly didn’t force a bevy of turnovers (22 in total), they took advantage of opportunities when presented to them, and in turn, managed to hold onto the ball on offense as well. They also measured “average” at rushing the passer (24 sacks as a team), but again, these were doled out with efficiency, and proved difference-makers in some big contests like the 27-6 upset over Rutgers late in the year. While you certainly can’t give all the credit to Aaron Donald, plenty of praise should be directed toward the junior for his tenacious ability to disrupt plays in the backfield, and really effect the opposing run game.
Plenty’s set to change for Pitt next season as Graham and Sunseri leave, but on the flip side, the Panthers will also carry over their head coach for the first time since the 2010 offseason. As they head to the ACC, things are looking up for Pitt overall, especially after a huge recruiting class that saw them ranked among the top 20-40 (depending on who you ask) on every evaluators’ list. Many believe they’re set up to contend for the Coastal division title almost immediately — though it’s debatable what the effect of such an event would have on the ACC (positive or negative). No matter; Paul Chryst has work left to do, and this year — an admittedly wild 6-7 campaign — was just the beginning.