Created on Saturday, 27 October 2012 20:57 Written by RJ Sepich / Sports Editor
I still remember that evening vividly.
The date was Nov. 25, 2011 — the night of the 104th, and last, scheduled Backyard Brawl football game between the Pitt Panthers and the West Virginia Mountaineers.
After Pitt jumped out to a 17-7 halftime lead, I stood up from my seat in the press box and joined the line for the restroom. I’ll never forget the conversation I overheard between two gentlemen wearing West Virginia attire.
“We’re going to win this game,” the one said. “Pitt doesn’t know how to play with a lead.”
“I agree. You can tell Sunseri is already getting nervous,” the other responded, suggesting that Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri would struggle in the second half. “It’s only a matter of time.”
They were right.
I proceeded to witness Pitt blow its fourth double-digit advantage of the season as the Panthers scored only three points in the second half, losing a 21-20 heartbreaker.
And to say Sunseri struggled would be an understatement. The quarterback took an unfathomable nine sacks in Pitt’s final 25 plays from scrimmage, and he seemed frozen with fear at times.
After the game, Sunseri still appeared shaken up, telling reporters that he knew he needed to throw the ball away.
His then-head coach, Todd Graham, failed to hide his frustration.
“We are playing so good in so many areas, and then there are just a few areas that are absolutely killing us,” Graham said, taking an obvious jab at his quarterback.
In that moment, I feared for Sunseri.
I feared that his legacy would be the quarterback who singlehandedly blew the final Backyard Brawl for Pitt. I feared that he would never be accepted by his coaches, players or fans. And I feared that a talented, well-spoken kid would never emotionally recover from that traumatic night.
Now, almost an entire year later, Sunseri is no longer that nervous quarterback who finds the ball glued to his right hand when games come down to the wire or his team loses momentum.
After taking more sacks than any other passer in college football and throwing more interceptions than touchdowns last season, Sunseri’s transformation into a solid quarterback for first-year head coach Paul Chryst and the Panthers is complete.
And on Saturday afternoon against Temple, he was incredible.
In the Panthers’ dominating 47-17 triumph at Heinz Field — their first Big East win this year — Sunseri heard cheers from many of the same Pitt fans who booed the quarterback throughout much of last season.
Just like in that fateful West Virginia game last November, Pitt jumped out to a 17-7 advantage in the second quarter. But instead of collapsing on offense, the Sunseri-led unit controlled the game for all four quarters, finishing with 528 total yards.
His impressive 321-yard, three-touchdown passing performance against the Owls now means that Sunseri has thrown for 13 touchdowns — more than all of last season — while tossing just two interceptions, with both of them occurring early in the season.
To his credit, the redshirt senior has remained humble throughout this campaign, never heaping praise on himself or reminding reporters and fans of how much he has improved.
“I just do my job,” he said after starring in Pitt’s stunning upset of Virginia Tech earlier this season, the biggest victory of his career.
His response was even more modest the next week — when the Panthers put up 55 points against Gardner-Webb — as Sunseri credited his running backs, blockers and wide receivers for the offensive explosion.
And after passing the 2,000-yard mark this season during the romp over Temple, Sunseri once again attributed all recognition to his teammates.
“The offensive line played really, really well,” he said. “You have to give credit to those guys.”
But he wasn’t done there.
“It’s a cohesive unit,” he said of the offense. “Give a lot of credit to the receivers. And the running backs are making great plays in the running game.”
Sunseri even thought that the coaching staff had a good day.
“I think they did a great job of understanding how to prepare this week.”
The guy couldn’t say enough about his teammates and coaches.
Now, it’s about time that Sunseri received some of the credit, too.
Sure, he’s still not perfect. He’s not one of the best quarterbacks in college football. He’s not going to win the Panthers any games by himself.
But he remains the only viable option Pitt has at quarterback, and he’s done a pretty damn good job managing games in 2012, even if he won’t admit it in his post-game interviews.
Tino Sunseri isn’t at fault for the Pitt football team’s four losses this season.
But he is a major reason why the Panthers now have four wins.