The inconsistent nature of Pitt's offense in 2011 continued last Saturday in the Panthers' 35-29 win over Maine. After putting in bipolar first-half/second-half performances in the season opener against Buffalo - one touchdown in eight first-half drives; four touchdowns in five second-half drives - Pitt (2-0) found inconsistency once again at Heinz Field.
The difference in the Panthers' most recent game was that the inconsistency tended to be on a drive-to-drive basis, rather than half-to-half. And sometimes, the inconsistency was apparent within the drive.
Consider the Panthers' opening to the second half. Pitt took the ball at its own 29 and used a fairly effective passing attack - three completions for 48 yards - to drive to the Maine 23.
"And then I made a mistake," redshirt junior quarterback Tino Sunseri said this week. The mistake came in the form of a misguided throw to Salath Williams in the end zone that landed in the hands of a Maine defender rather than Pitt's receiver.
On Pitt's next drive, the wheels fully came off. Following a one-yard run by Ray Graham, Sunseri was sacked for a 10-yard loss on second down and then took another sack on third down when center Ryan Turnley snapped the ball before Sunseri was ready. To add insult to injury, Matt Yoklic dropped the snap on the ensuing punt, and Maine responded with a two-play touchdown drive that cut the lead to five points, 20-15.
But just when it seemed like Pitt was in real trouble, Sunseri and the offense came together with an 11-play, 60-yard scoring drive that featured the Panthers' quarterback at his best. Sunseri went 5-of-5 for 54 yards, including three check-down passes, which head coach Todd Graham had mentioned as missing from Sunseri's performance in the first game.
"You can see, when everybody's doing their job and everybody's focusing in and trying to do to the best of their ability and they get it done, you can see how prolific this offense can be," Sunseri said. "We go down the field pretty sharp."
Of course, the good vibes of that drive were quickly soured the next time Pitt got the ball. Sunseri led a four-play drive that ended with an interception on fourth down. Todd Graham later put the blame for that play on the coaching staff, but the inconsistency is hard to ignore.
"There are so many good things that we see on film," co-offensive coordinator Mike Norvell said on Tuesday. "It's just one or two things, maybe holding the ball for a second here or depth of the route there, just little things that are part of the transition of putting in a new system, and we have to get better at executing it. That's something we really challenged our guys on."
Through two games this season, Sunseri's statistics aren't too encouraging: 58.7 completion percentage, 403 yards, 1 touchdown, 2 interceptions. And in a stat that is, at least in part, reflective of his decision-making, Sunseri has been sacked nine times.
The coaching staff has said that Sunseri shows the ability to run the offense in practice; with the meat of the schedule looming, he has to transition that into games.
"In this new offense, you can go out there and practice a hundred times, but it's different than in the game," Sunseri said. "Guys have to be able to react and make decisions as fast as they can and make the right ones."