Rain doesn’t temper Pitt’s tempo in spring game

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PITTSBURGH (AP)—Pittsburgh put on an offensive show in its first spring game under coach Todd Graham.

Even in a driving rainstorm, the no-huddle Panthers moved quickly.

Pitt’s first time on the Heinz Field turf turned into a frantic two hours that featured 61 points and 81 pass attempts in a pace that averaged well better than a snap per minute of real time.

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TIPPED AWAY— Gold defensive back Jeremiah Davis (1) tips the ball away from Blue wide receiver Mike Shanahan (87) during Pittsburgh’s spring game, April 16, at Heinz Field. (AP Photo/Don Wright)

The Blue team, which had most of the starters, beat the Gold 48-13.

Tino Sunseri capped a spring in which he solidified his role as the Panthers’ starting quarterback by going 35 for 55 for 416 yards.

Buddy Jackson returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown, and the game featured four passing plays of at least 25 yards, nine sacks and five turnovers.

“I challenged the guys when we went out: rain, sleet, snow, wind—it doesn’t matter,” Graham said. “It doesn’t affect how we’re going to operate and how we’re going to run our offense. We were going to do the things we always do.”

Afterward, Graham joked his players were tired.

Pitt averaged roughly 50-55 offensive snaps per game last season. Graham has said the goal for his no-huddle team is to run 80 offensive plays. The first-team Panthers topped that Saturday—and without the benefit of a halftime or of television timeouts.

“We’re going to play a whole bunch more snaps than what they’re used to,” Graham said. “That’s one of the reasons today I went 100 snaps. I wanted to show them.”

Pitt is banking on that up-tempo style to create excitement among a fanbase that didn’t fill enough Heinz Field seats during the Dave Wannstedt era that ended with an 8-5 season last fall.

In a crowded sports marketplace that includes three professional teams, the Panthers are second fiddle both in their own sport—the NFL Steelers have more Super Bowl titles than anyone—and within their own university—Pitt’s basketball team has regularly been ranked in the top five in recent years.

Enter Graham, who twice had teams that led the nation in total offense in his four seasons at Tulsa. He was hired in January following an embarrassing hiring-and-then-firing of Mike Haywood following the former Miami (Ohio) coach’s arrest on a domestic violence charge.

While Wannstedt took a pro-style, conservative style and approach, Graham over the past three months has repeatedly emphasized terms such as “speed,” “energy,” and “explosiveness” ad nauseam to anyone that would listen.

Billboards and buses around town adorn advertisements for tickets featuring the slogan “high-octane football.”

Graham generally stuck to that pledge Saturday, even in an almost-empty stadium and on a Heinz Field grass that at times has been notoriously unstable (although it appeared to hold up well Saturday). Rain that was heavy at kickoff but gradually tapered off as the game went on.

Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald—the program’s most accomplished offensive player since Dan Marino—watched from the pressbox. The 2003 Heisman Trophy runner-up had to be wondering how gaudy his statistics might have looked that season if he had been playing under Graham.

Junior receiver Mike Shanahan had seven catches for 158 yards, including a 50-yard touchdown.

“I think we got a little taste of what we can expect during the season, and it was good for us,” Shanahan said.

Graham said his system places plenty of pressure on the quarterback, and he inherited Sunseri at the position after the junior threw for 2,572 yards and 16 touchdowns last season.

Saturday Sunseri threw two touchdowns, but also had an interception and lost a fumble.

“That first practice, the coaches are yelling to ‘hurry up, hurry up’ and running around,” Sunseri said. “We looked at each other, ‘Whoa, we’re not used to this, we’ve got to gather ourselves.’ And as each practice moved on, we felt like more and more comfortable as an offense.

“Now we’re actually beating the coaches drill to drill. We’re the ones yelling, we’re the ones telling the line to get up there and get set.”

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