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September 26, 2011It may seem like an odd sentiment for a team currently riding a two-game losing streak, but in the aftermath of Pitt's most recent loss, there was a consensus among the Panthers' players and coaches:
The team is getting better.
"I can tell you this: I believe in our football team," head coach Todd Graham said after Pitt lost to Notre Dame 15-12 at Heinz Field on Saturday. "I believe we've gotten better. We showed we're a pretty good football team today because that was a really, really good football team that we played today in Notre Dame."
Regardless of the opponent, Pitt does seem to have shown improvement in its two most recent games, even though both of those were losses. The Panthers held a 24-3 lead over Iowa late in the third quarter before falling to the Hawkeyes in Iowa City, and Pitt kept Notre Dame largely in check until one drive in the fourth quarter gave the Irish the victory.
Most of the noticeable improvement has been on defense. Pitt entered Saturday's game with the nation's second-worst pass defense but held Notre Dame's prolific passing attack to just 216 yards. And that continued from a rather stout showing against Iowa, a defensive performance that was marred only by the Hawkeyes' explosive fourth quarter.
Iowa's James Vandenberg completed 14-of-17 for 162 yards and three touchdowns in the fourth quarter two weeks ago; remove that quarter from the last two games, and Pitt's defense has allowed a total of 453 passing yards, one touchdown and 57% completion rate, while also forcing two interceptions.
That effort included holding Michael Floyd, Notre Dame's standout receiver, to 27 yards on four receptions. Floyd entered the game ranked fourth in the nation in receptions per game and receiving yards per game.
"It was a confidence-builder for us," said redshirt sophomore safety Jason Hendricks, who had an interception against Notre Dame. "We held one of the highest-scoring teams in the nation to 15 points, and I felt like we played almost a complete game today."
Redshirt senior defensive tackle Chas Alecxih agreed on the topic of confidence.
"We're not losing confidence. As an example, I'll use last year when we got smashed by [Miami] 31-3; it was hard to have confidence after that. But we're still very confident, and not only in our defensive abilities, but I thought [quarterback Tino Sunseri] made leaps and bounds today...I'm real proud of him."
While the defense has shown improvement on a week-to-week basis, the offense still leaves something to be desired. Pitt scored 24 points in the first three quarters against Iowa but has produced just 15 points in the ensuing five quarters. The Panthers are still struggling to master the tempo and flow of the team's new offense.
"We're so close we can touch it," Sunseri said. "That's the big thing and that's the thing that's so frustrating in the locker room: we feel like we are inches away from really busting this open and really being in that tempo offense and understanding it and really being able to put points on the board."
Still, the offense has shown signs of improvement, even if those signs aren't quite as pronounced as those on defense. While Sunseri is still working to make quicker decisions and get rid of the ball within the rhythm of the offense, he has steadily gotten better at making reads in each game. His statistics may not bear that out - 65.1% completion, 823 yards, four touchdowns, four interceptions - but Sunseri is confident that improvement is happening.
"It's a new system and new everything, and we feel like we're getting better and better at it each week. We feel like we're getting more comfortable at it each week. I know that I'm getting more comfortable in it each and every week. We just have to keep on rolling and get better."