PISCATAWAY, NJ - Ten days ago, Pitt's offense put in its best offensive performance of 2011 and one of its best in recent memory in a 44-17 blowout win against South Florida at Heinz Field.
On Saturday, the Panthers took a major step backwards, failing to find any kind of production beyond running back Ray Graham in a 34-10 blowout defeat at Highpoint Solutions Stadium.
Rather than lighting up a ranked team with an offense that looked like the preseason promises of Pitt's new head coach, Todd Graham's Panthers (3-3 overall, 1-1 Big East) were on the opposite end of the spectrum on Saturday, posting an offensive performance that ranks as low as any of Dave Wannstedt's tenure.
Graham certainly thinks Saturday's loss was a low-water mark. Or, at least, he hopes it is.
"It was an extremely disappointing day for us, coming off probably our best game of the season last week and playing absolutely our worst game tonight," Graham said after the game.
Pitt's offensive ineffectiveness was evident in a number of facets. From a numbers standpoint, the Panthers gained a total of 271 yards, the second-lowest total of the season. Pitt converted just 3-of-15 third downs, setting a season low. And the Panthers threw for 131 yards against Rutgers, also setting a new season low.
But the real problems ran deeper than just a lack of statistical productivity. Pitt was unable to put together extended drives throughout the game, and the Panthers' best drive was their first, when they ran 14 plays for 74 yards on a game-opening drive. But even that drive, which was efficient and effective, fell short when a first-and-5 at the Rutgers 11 netted a total of -1 yards on three plays, forcing the Panthers to settle for a field goal.
After that drive, Pitt was completely inept on offense. Facing constant pressure from an impressive Rutgers front seven, the Panthers were unable to sustain any possessions. In total, Pitt ran 17 drives; of the 16 that followed the game-opening field goal drive, Pitt punted nine times, had four drives end with turnovers, and turned the ball over on downs at the end of the game. 14 of Pitt's 17 drives lasted four plays or less.
The result was that Pitt could not find any consistency on offense Saturday afternoon.
"We definitely felt a little bit out of rhythm; that was noticeable," redshirt junior center Ryan Turnley said after the game. "The thing with our offense is, you have to get going. You can't have three-and-outs; it really takes you out of a rhythm, and tonight we had a lot of three-and-outs."
Pitt's offense reached such depths on Saturday that Graham even made a change at quarterback. When the team took the field for its first possession of the third quarter, Graham replaced Tino Sunseri with Trey Anderson, saying after the game that he thought the freshman from Pearland (Tex.) could "spark our offense." But Anderson couldn't find any more success, missing on both pass attempts he made and throwing an interception on his second drive.
Sunseri finished the game with 14 completions on 28 pass attempts, throwing for 127 yards, no touchdowns and three interceptions. Further complicating the matter was Rutgers' pass rush, which resulted in six sacks of the redshirt junior quarterback.
"Whenever they [blitz], you have to make them hurt; they were getting to us and we weren't making them hurt on the blitz," Sunseri said. "You live and die by the sword of the blitz; they were living and they were getting a lot of pressure on us. We couldn't get the ball out and couldn't get it to our playmakers."
The only bright spot of Pitt's offense was junior tailback Ray Graham, who rushed 24 times for 165 yards and a touchdown. But even he acknowledged that the Panthers were outplayed by their opponents.
"You have to give credit to their 'D;' they came out ready; they came out playing hard," Graham said. "They hit us with a lot of blitzes that caught us off-guard, and give credit to them: they did a real good job of that, and we had a hard time picking it up."
Pitt's offense didn't get much help from the team's defense or special teams units, but the offense was still the biggest culprit of the day, particularly since one interception gave Rutgers the ball at Pitt's 18 and another was returned for a touchdown.
"It's very disappointing and it's unacceptable how we played," Todd Graham said. "We've been very inconsistent, from playing our best game last week to playing our worst, but again, you have to give Rutgers an awful lot of credit."