First-year Pittsburgh coach Todd Graham started the season talking about how he believed the Panthers could compete for a Big East championship.
He’ll end it hoping for merely a bowl bid, any kind will do.
The Panthers (5-6, 3-3 Big East) head into the season finale on Saturday against struggling Syracuse (5-6, 1-5) needing a victory to reach the six-win benchmark required to be bowl eligible.
“Obviously, we have not accomplished what we set out to,” Graham said yesterday.
Pitt’s painful 21-20 loss to rival West Virginia last Friday was a microcosm of the season. The Panthers dominated the game for long stretches only to wilt in the fourth quarter underneath a bevy of sacks and missed opportunities.
Quarterback Tino Sunseri was sacked 10 times in all. Nine of them came in the second half, including one on the game’s final play. The defense held one of the nation’s most potent offenses in check most of the night yet found itself trudging off the field wondering how another one got away.
The Panthers are trying to stay upbeat. It’s not always easy. Safety Jared Holley believed Sunseri would find a way to pull it out and insists he’ll feel the same way if Sunseri is put in the same situation against the Orange.
“We’re not going to get down on ourselves,” Holley said. “We know this is a team game and we know that it takes all of us to win. We missed some plays too.”
The season is reminiscent of another rough makeover Graham endured while serving as an assistant to Rich Rodriguez at West Virginia in 2001. The Mountaineers went 3-8 in Rodriguez’s first year as the offense had trouble converting from former coach Don Nehlen’s traditional offense to Rodriguez’s run-heavy version of the spread.
The next year the Mountaineers went 9-4 after Graham was promoted from linebackers coach to co-defensive coordinator.
It’s a transformation Graham believes can happen just as quickly at Pitt.
“There’s no question championships are in our future, in our near future,” Graham said.
Just not this year.
That doesn’t mean the Panthers have nothing to play for on Saturday. While whatever bowl they would land in won’t be within shouting distance of a high-profile BCS game, a bowl would give Pitt extra practice time and a chance to end the season with a winning record.
“We’re probably one of the best 6-6 teams if we’re able to win this last game in the country if we can find a way to win,” Graham said. “I think the bowl experience and all the things and what it means ... would be beneficial for our kids.”
Particularly for Sunseri, who has been up and down all season. He was down in the second half against the Mountaineers, holding onto the ball too long and opening himself up to get hammered by the Mountaineers.
Graham took much of the blame for Sunseri’s problems, saying he didn’t do a good enough job preparing Sunseri.
“On offense, our biggest challenge is at the quarterback position and getting that executed,” Graham said. “Our job is to get that done.”
Graham doesn’t plan on removing Sunseri as the starter but allowed he could play redshirt freshman Mark Myers a few snaps against the Orange. Myers has thrown all of one pass this season but impressed Graham at times in practice.
“I think Mark’s got a lot of promise,” Graham said.
It’s a mantra he repeats when talking about his team, though he’s a little harsher when talking about his own job performance.
“I feel like I’ve let (our players) down and I want to make sure we finish this thing the right way,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of great things and have really developed in a positive way.”