Some trends aren't desirable, and Pitt's worst trend of the 2011 season reappeared on Friday night, as the Panthers' offense once again proved to be maddeningly inconsistent in a 21-20 loss to West Virginia at Milan Puskar Stadium.
The Panthers' offense tanked on Friday night, gaining a paltry 296 yards, averaging less than four yards per play, and failing to reach the end zone after the first quarter.
Ineffective offense isn't a new theme for Pitt this season, and neither is the timeline for the step back in the progress of the unit. Pitt played a relatively strong game offensively in a loss at Iowa and followed that with a 12-point performance against Notre Dame.
The Panthers ran all over South Florida and gained more than 500 total yards of offense; the next week they were awful offensively in a 34-10 loss at Rutgers.
Another 500-yard performance against Connecticut led to a turnover-filled mess against Cincinnati. And most recently, a very measured and efficient performance at Louisville preceded Friday night's offensive debacle.
"It's puzzling, just head-scratching," head coach Todd Graham said after the game. "I don't understand it. It was disappointing. We're just not executing; that's all I can say about that."
At the center of the offensive issues was redshirt junior quarterback Tino Sunseri, who segued from his arguably his most sound performance in the win over Louisville to arguably his least sound performance in the loss to West Virginia. Sunseri completed 12-of-23 passes for 137 yards, no touchdowns, and one interception Friday night, but the most telling statistic was that Sunseri was sacked 10 times.
That sack total includes nine in the final 25 plays and four on the potential game-winning drive, which lasted a total of seven plays. The final three plays of the game were all Sunseri sacks, including an intentional grounding on second-and-18 and a sack-fumble on the game-ending third-and-24.
"You're trying so hard to make a play back there, and when you're trying to extend a play, sometimes the best thing to do is to throw the ball away," Sunseri said after the game. "I think in the back of my head I was thinking about the intentional grounding and I got a little flustered, but I need to make sure that if I vacate the pocket, I have to know that if I'm outside the pocket I can throw it past he line of scrimmage and it's just an incomplete pass, the clock stops, and we can regroup and re-huddle. You can't take sacks on the last drive of the game; you have to get the ball out of your hands and get it to people and we just weren't able to."
The disastrous final drive capped three quarters of ineffectiveness from Pitt's offense. The Panthers drove 71 yards for a touchdown on their first drive of the game and scored a touchdown on a 52-yard drive later in the first quarter, but after that, Pitt went nowhere. In the final three quarters Friday night, no Pitt drive gained more than 23 yards and only five drives gained double-digit yardage.
West Virginia even helped Pitt's cause by fumbling two punt returns, giving the Panthers the ball deep in Mountaineer territory. But Pitt settled for field goals in both instances.
"We absolutely did not execute, and it wasn't just the end of the game; it was all night long," Graham said. "We had missed opportunities all over the field that resulted in some field goals instead of touchdowns. We just didn't execute; for whatever reason, it was a night that we just didn't execute on offense."
Pitt (5-6, 3-3) will host Syracuse (5-6, 1-5) at Heinz Field in the regular-season finale on Saturday.