From first play, SU defense exposed by Pitt aerial assault

Facebook Twitter Google+ Comments Mike Holmes expected the Pittsburgh routine. First-and-10 on the Panthers’ first offensive play of the game would be simple enough. They’d go with the bread and butter. Run the ball up the gut with Dion Lewis or Ray Graham. Syracuse stacked nine in the box, expecting the same thing. Sixteen seconds later, Pittsburgh wide receiver Devin Street was standing in the end zone after a simple bubble screen opened up a 79-yard scamper for the touchdown. ‘Statistically, (running) on first downs, yeah, we were surprised,’ Holmes said. ‘When we look at the breakdowns of the film, they usually run on first down. That’s always in the back of your mind.’ Pittsburgh’s pass-heavy attack started on its first offensive play of the game, and it continued until the Panthers blew open a game that turned into a 45-14 blowout Saturday. Thrown for a loop, the SU defense couldn’t adjust. Pittsburgh quarterback Tino Sunseri completed 17 of 24 pass attempts, finishing the day with 266 yards and four touchdowns. The aerial assault produced key third-down conversions that led to big plays. Soon, the Orange found itself looking at a three-touchdown deficit heading into halftime. And it all started from the beginning.AdvertisementThis is placeholder text ‘Right from the beginning,’ SU head coach Doug Marrone said when asked, simply, what went wrong Saturday. ‘First play. Bubble. There you go. Seventy-eight yards. ‘I thought we did a nice job responding and coming back, and then all of a sudden, it’s a wheel route. And then all of a sudden, we’re short on a route. They make a good play on third down, or we don’t separate enough.’ Perhaps it should have been expected. In five of its six games this season, Pittsburgh has started out the game with a pass play. But the volume of passes thereafter and the consistency of the game plan haven’t been seen this year. Marrone and his staff prepared for a Pittsburgh team that has accumulated 53 percent of its rushing yards on first down. The Panthers use their two-headed monster at running back — Lewis and Graham — to open up the passing game. Against Syracuse, they did the opposite. ‘The very first play of the game, they ran a bubble screen,’ SU defensive end Chandler Jones said. ‘And then they started throwing for the rest of the game. It was pretty shocking, them throwing the ball. Because they usually don’t throw the ball.’ Added SU safety Phillip Thomas: ‘We’re a stop-the-run team first.’ Sunseri attempted 16 passes in the first half and completed 12 of them, three of which went for touchdowns. The Orange couldn’t make the adjustments. SU’s game plan was to stack the box with eight or nine defenders. Safeties Thomas and Max Suter positioned themselves to stop the expected rushing attack. But Pittsburgh max-protected, passed repeatedly and took shots downfield. The run-leaning defense got exposed, frequently leaving SU cornerbacks Holmes and Da’Mon Merkerson one-on-one with the two 6-foot-5 behemoth threats at wide receiver, sophomore Mike Shanahan and junior Jon Baldwin. ‘As aggressive as they were trying to stop the run,’ Pittsburgh head coach Dave Wannstedt said, ‘we felt like we had to throw the ball to try and get them off our backs. ‘The plan was good. We executed well enough to win.’ There were big plays, like the 79-yard strike from Sunseri to Street and the 30-yard connection between Sunseri and Shanahan. And there were crucial third-down conversions. When the Panthers opened a three-touchdown lead in the second quarter, they went 4-of-6 in third-down situations. Two on a drive that would lead to the 30-yard touchdown pass. And two on a drive that would lead to a one-yard touchdown run by Lewis. ‘Pitt did a good job of three-step dropping and getting rid of the ball fast,’ Jones said. ‘That’s something we definitely need to work on.’ When Lewis powered his way into the end zone on the one-yard rush, it was not the norm. Lewis and Graham combined to rush 13 times in the first half, while Sunseri attempted 16 passes. By that time, the Pittsburgh routine was out the window. So was the game. And no one saw it coming. ‘They just executed better than we did on defense,’ Holmes said. ‘There were certain drives where you could see the defense executed, and we played with them. But on certain ones, we just didn’t execute.’ [email protected] Published on October 15, 2010 at 12:00 pm

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