Q&A: Panthers

Senior QB Tino Sunseri

Panther Digest publisher Tony Greco answers five questions posed by Irisheyes.com regarding the 4-4 Pitt Panthers, a capable squad looking to play spoiler Saturday in South Bend.

Which Pittsburgh team can the Irish expect, the one that hammered Virginia Tech and took Louisville to the wire or the team that struggled vs. Syracuse in between? And what negative event(s) happened vs. the Orange that was avoided vs. the Hokies and Cardinals?

Greco: "That's the million dollar question. If there's one thing that has defined the brief Paul Chryst era, its the fact that you never know which Pitt team will show up. Lets phrase it this way. Pitt seems outmatched in every aspect against Virginia Tech, who was ranked No. 15 entering that game. Pitt showed up. Even when Louisville came in undefeated, Pitt at least looked prepared. Notre Dame should win this game, but I wouldn't expect Pitt to go away quietly gearing up for their toughest opponent of the season."

"There were several mistakes or plays that could have given Pitt the win that night--a missed field goal, a wide open receiver in the end zone late in the game. The offensive line gave up five sacks in that game, and their play in that game--even though it wasn't talked about as much--prevented the offense from getting points, or at least moving the ball and converting key third downs when they needed to."

How has first-year head coach Paul Chryst been received since the Panthers bounced back from an 0-2 start -- including a not-close loss to FCS Youngstown State -- to a sense of normalcy at 4-4? And what's up with the names going back on the jerseys?

Greco: "Paul Chryst has been well-received since the moment he set foot in Pittsburgh all along. Fans are still wary after two 0-2 stretches, and not feeling at ease despite a 47-17 win Saturday. The Youngstown State loss was certainly not the ideal way to start, but this is a program that has been full of these types of losses regardless of who the coach is.

"The names going back on the jerseys is the number two topic in town this week, right behind the talk of the Steelers throwback uniforms. Football has been very far from the minds of a lot of fans this week. I get the idea of taking names off as a way of putting your stamp on things as a head coach. Players were critical of the move. Now, names are back. Chryst says its a small way of rewarding the team for the way they've bought in to his beliefs, and the way they've progressed."

Has Pittsburgh's pass protection improved since the last time these teams met and can the Panthers keep the Irish defensive front from pinning its ears back and going after Sunseri on third-down with early down rushing success?

Greco: "Pitt's offensive line has been a work in progress all season long. No one expected much, but with the numbers line coach Jim Hueber has, he's done a good job. Interestingly last year, Pitt played Notre Dame in its first game without Chris Jacobson, who went down with a season-ending knee injury the week before. This time, it's right guard Ryan Schlieper, who is lost for the season with a foot injury.

"Arthur Doakes will make his first career start at Notre Dame, which is no doubt one of the big story lines this week. This is definitely going to be one of Pitt's biggest challenges this week. The Panthers haven't fared well against the more experiences defensive lines (six sacks vs. Cincinnati, five vs. Syracuse and Louisville). While the group has progressed, its not unrealistic to expect six sacks from the Irish defense Saturday."

Speaking of which: Tino Sunseri has 13 touchdowns vs. just two interceptions. Where is his greatest improvement since last year's contest vs. the Irish in Heinz Field? 

Greco: "Decision-making. Granted, he was learning a new system last year, his weaknesses last year came when making a decision on taking a sack versus trying to throw the ball away, or throwing to a spot of the field where there was no receiver. Combined with the fact that the offensive coaching staff has done a remarkable job in working with Sunseri this year, he's also played with receivers Mike Shanahan, Devin Street and Cameron Saddler for three years, his tight end (Hubie Graham) has only been here two years, but is his roommate. There's an obvious comfort level also in place. "

What do the Panthers do defensively that could give the inconsistent Irish offense problems? 

Greco: "Getting pressure on the quarterback has been a concern. Missing tackles has been a concern. There's nothing the front seven can do that should concern the Notre Dame offense, but safety Jason Hendricks has quietly been Pitt's defensive MVP this year. He leads the team in tackles and interceptions. He can be a ball hawk, but does a good job hiding himself. He reads quarterbacks pretty well, and is able to jump receivers routes in a lot of cases. The more he gets involved, the better for Pitt."

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Over his last three games, Tino Sunseri has completed 62-of-85 (72.9%) for 946 yards, 6 touchdowns…

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