Jan. 7
1 p.m.
ESPN                                  SMU vs Pittsburgh

Anson Whaley, of Cardiac Hill, a blog devoted to Pittsburgh Panther sports, answered some questions for us.



BS: BIgger things were expected of the Panthers, who went 6-6 this year. How would you rate this season overall for Pittsburgh?
Anson Whaley: This season was clearly a disappointment no matter how you look at it. There will be Pitt fans that will tell you that 6-6 in the season of a new head coach isn't all that bad, but I'd beg to differ. Pitt had several very talented skill players such as Ray Graham and Devin Street, two offensive linemen that will probably be playing in the NFL, and an excellent defensive line. But another advantage came from having eight home games and playing in the weak Big East. There were injuries to deal with, no doubt, but Pitt had too much going for them. To only finish 6-6 with those types of odds and barely qualify for a bowl game was extremely disappointing. If I were to grade the season, I'd give it a C- or maybe even a D+. This was a program that averaged nine wins per season over the past three years, so 6-6 was a big step down.
BS: Pitt hired Wisconsin OC Paul Chryst to take over for Todd Graham, who left for Arizona State. What are your thoughts on the hire?
Anson Whaley: At first glance, I love the hire. I wrote on my blog that I wasn't a big fan of the Todd Graham hire and even less of a fan of the Michael Haywood one, so this is the first time I've been truly excited about what they've done since Dave Wannstedt left. Chryst has run some of the top offenses in the country at Wisconsin, but did it with power football - something that should appeal to western Pennsylvania fans. But more than that, he seems genuine and I think that will go a long way with local recruiting. As an added bonus, he was able to lure offensive line coach Bob Bostad away and that guy is a flat out guru. He's had 11 All-Big Ten offensive linemen over the past two years and four All-Americans over that span. Bostad is also out on the recruiting trail reguarly and with that type of track record, Pitt should be able to land some quality offensive linemen - an area that they frankly haven't excelled in.
BS: The offense was supposed to to be high flying this year, but settled for middle of the pack numbers. What is the key to this offense and who are the key players?
Anson Whaley: The biggest factor in the offense installed under Todd Graham is good, quick decisions by the quarterback. Because of that, the team goes as Tino Sunseri goes. Sunseri's had some ups and downs this year and how he plays really determines the outcome of the game more often than not. When Sunseri has more touchdown passes than interceptions, Pitt is 4-1. When he doesn't, they're 2-5. Translation: The Panthers have a very hard time winning if Sunseri doesn't play well.
With star running back Ray Graham out for the season, the offense has taken a hit. He was leading the nation in rushing when he was injured and his loss was a big one, no doubt. That said, Pitt's other running backs - most notably Zach Brown and Isaac Bennett, have really steppped up and played adequately. The running game will be there, but the passing game is always a question mark. And it hasn't all been on Sunseri, either. Receivers have had a number of drops this year and that's added to the problem.
BS: The defense was strong this year. What makes this group effective and who are the players that make it work?
Anson Whaley: In my opinion, it's the defensive line. Those guys have gotten to the quarterback early and often and wreaked havoc all year. Leading the way is true sophomore, Aaron Donald. Donald has ten sacks on the year and is perhaps one of the most underrated defensive players in the nation. There's also senior Brandon Lindsey who has 8 1/2 sacks and should be playing on Sundays next year. Though Pitt is sixth in the nation in sacks and gets plenty of pressure on the quarterback, they also do a great job of stopping the run, ranking 24th in the country in that category. For the Panthers, it all starts up front.
BS: If you could choose one player to have a breakout performance in the bowl game, who would it be?
Anson Whaley: Truthfully, I think Tino Sunseri will play a pretty good game. But assuming he's back (he missed Pitt's last game against Syracuse with an injury), I'll go with backup running back Zach Brown if we're looking for a surprise player. SMU has a terrific rush defense, but as a senior, I think he's going to be extra motivated to go out with a bang. He won't likely rush for a ton of yards, but I'd look for him to score a touchdown and be involved in the passing game catching balls out of the backfield. In the offense that Pitt runs, he could make an impact.
Thanks a lot to Anson Whaley. Check out the blog at www.cardiachill.com and follow @PittPantherBlog .

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