Monday, December 28, 2009

Meineke Car Care Bowl – Pittsburgh 19, UNC 17

* Run Baby, Run: As he has all season long, freshman tailback Dion Lewis carried the load for the Pittsburgh offense. The Albany (New York) native turned in his 10th 100-yard game of the season and eighth in a row. His season-low 79 yards came on September 19th against Navy, which was also the only game he failed to average over four-yards per carry (3.4 versus the Midshipmen). Lewis’ 159-yard day against the Tar Heels was his fourth straight over 150 yards and seventh such performance of the season.

What the freshman tailback lacks in straight-line speed, he more than makes up for with burst—when he sees the hole, Lewis shoots through it. With excellent vision and instincts the Panther does a good job of weaving between the tackles, and is stronger than you think. His patience gives his linemen the opportunity to block. His first step is where the play is designed to go, after that it’s a lot of instinct. He’s extremely dangerous when he cuts back and goes against the grain. The little guy almost gets lost in between the tackles, then finds a little sliver and emerges from the scrum. Even in small spaces, he has the quickness to take a little side step to make someone miss. The lost fumble by Lewis is very uncharacteristic, the first of his career—he went 302 carries as a collegian without a fumble.

Lewis broke the legendary Tony Dorsett’s freshman rushing record at Pitt, which stood since 1973 at 1,686 yards. His 10 100-yard games matched Dorsett’s 1973 campaign, while Lewis’ 17 rushing touchdowns and 19 total scores are new marks for Panther freshmen. The rookie ball carrier finished the season with a total of 1,799 yards, second all-time in school history, passing Craig “Ironhead” Heyward (1,791 yards in 1987), looking up only to Dorsett’s Heisman Trophy season in 1976, when the Hall of Famer ran for 2,150 yards.

Lewis isn’t the next coming of Dorsett, but could anyone ask for more from the lightly recruited three-star recruit? After the game, head coach Dave Wannstedt evoked the name of not only Dorsett but Emmitt Smith and Ricky Williams as he spoke about how great backs get stronger as the game goes on. North Carolina’s Butch Davis compared him to a former Miami Hurricane.

“He reminds me of Clinton Portis,” Davis said of Lewis. “He has that same explosiveness in the hole as Portis. He can jump straight, sideways, spin and cut. Because of his speed and because of his quickness he doesn't take a lot of blows.”

We should also recognize Pitt’s fullback Henry Hynoski, who at 6’2” and 260 pounds has prototypical size for a lead back. He did a great job much of the day taking on North Carolina’s star-studded linebacking corps, neutralizing them on most of the Panther’s positive runs. Many of Lewis’ effective runs came following Hynoski into the hole. The sophomore also has decent hands making three catches on the day. Senior tight end Nate Byham did an excellent of job of blocking at the point of attack as well. At 6’4” and 265 pounds, Byham is a legitimate tight end.

* The Arial Attack: After getting away with a potential interception early on—when Bill Stull tossed one under pressure and overthrew his receiver, dropping the ball into the hands of a UNC defensive back—the senior signal caller had a very solid performance to lead the Panther’s to the victory. The Pittsburgh native completed 17-24 passes for 163 yards. He has a decent arm, and when given time to set and throw, he’s a pretty passer. Stull has nice touch on his passes and when he’s on, the quarterback can be fairly accurate. For the season, Stull finished with 2,633 yards, 21 touchdown passes and eight interceptions (65.1 completion percentage), almost shocking numbers after such an inconsistent 2008 campaign—2,356 yards, nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions (57 completion percentage).

Leading receiver, true sophomore Jonathan Baldwin had a quiet day—three receptions for 31 yards, as did senior pass catching tight end Dorin Dickerson—four receptions for 21 yards. The duo had trouble making things happen against the speedy and athletic North Carolina secondary. Baldwin did show off his upper body strength using his stiff arm to get extra yards after the catch on his first grab of the game. Not many receivers climb the ladder like Baldwin, who always uses his hands to catch the football. He is a good and willing blocker. Typically for a man of his size—6’5” and 225 pounds—Baldwin is impressive after the catch. Dickerson who is undersized for a tight end—6’2” and 230 pounds—can line up at fullback and H-Back, in addition to tight end. Dickerson struggled to make plays after the catch and needs to work on his blocking, otherwise he will be limited at the next level. The senior also dropped a would- be touchdown—he was interfered with (flag thrown)—but Dickerson should have made the catch anyway.

Stull’s favorite target on the day came as a surprise, as freshman backup Mike Shanahan led Pittsburgh with five receptions for 83 yards. He worked the deep in route to perfection. Shanahan got deeper than the UNC linebackers on a regular basis and caught passes in front of the Tar Heels’ defensive backs. He has great size (6’5” and 220 pounds), good hands and runs his routes well. On the Panthers’ go-ahead drive in the fourth quarter, Shanahan made a big catch, taking a big hit. Entering the bowl game, the freshman pass catcher had just 10 career receptions—Shanahan could emerge as a solid number two receiver taking advantage of all the attention paid to Baldwin by making plays across the middle of the field.

In addition to his run blocking, Byham was very good helping out in pass protection. Left tackle Jason Pinkston was also impressive as a pass blocker. For the most part the junior did an excellent job on North Carolina’s speedy pass rushers. On the other side of the line, sophomore right tackle OT Lucas Nix had his trouble keeping their ends out of the backfield.

* Best Pro Prospect – Pittsburgh:
DE Greg Romeus, Junior – 3 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 PD, 1 FF

First off, don’t leave your tight ends to block Greg Romeus. North Carolina tried and the junior end shed the block with ease and engulfed the North Carolina runner in the backfield for a loss of three yards. For a player who did not play organized football until his senior season of high school, Romeus displays some impressive instincts. He made a nice read on an end around that he attacked perfectly on the weakside–Romeus was disciplined in containment and let the play came to him. The difference-making end didn’t make the tackle but the UNC receiver retreated to get around Romeus and wound up losing 11 yards on the play. The junior also does a good job of getting his hands up. On one particular play he read the screen and batted the ball down, using his amazing wingspan. He’s really learning the game, which makes one hope he returns for his final season, even though he appears headed towards being a second round pick. Romeus can bring it off the edge, but he can also stunt and bring pressure from the inside. The Florida native keeps playing to the whistle—he doesn’t stand around if he can’t get into the backfield. He’s also very strong, ripping the football out of the hands of North Carolina’s tailback, even when the runner had both hands on the ball. He is an impressive athlete, who on occasion even dropped back in coverage. Romeus is 6’6” and 270 pounds so size is not an issue.

* More Pitt Defense: In addition to Romeus, the Panthers have one of the more talented front sevens in the country, beginning with a deep, productive and versatile defensive line. Manning the other defensive end position for Pitt is fellow junior Jabaal Sheard, who at 6’4” and 260 pounds can more than hold his own. Sheard is capable of getting off blocks, which allowed him to record two tackles for a loss, including a sack. Throughout most of the game, Sheard lined up extra wide on the strongside, outside of the tight end rather than tackle.

Senior defensive tackle Mick Williams is one of the quicker linemen around, using that first step and footwork to get into the offensive backfield. Williams recorded two sacks on the day, although on one of them was completely unblocked. He is only 6’1” and 280 pounds, which is why he won’t be a high draft pick despite being co-Defensive Player of the Year in the Big East. Fellow senior defensive tackle Gus Mustakas (6’3” and 285 pounds) is your classic overachiever—a high effort player who finds a way to make in impact. Even with Williams, Mustakas and possibly Romeus on the way out, Pittsburgh has more than enough talent coming back. In addition to Sheard, keep an eye on sophomores Myles Caragein (tackle), Chas Alecxih (tackle) and Brandon Lindsey (end), as well as freshman defensive end Shayne Hale, who is already 6’5” and 250 pounds.

At the next level, sophomore Max Gruder and freshman Dan Mason were impressive. Gruder is very active against the pass, not allowing much after the catch. On one tackle in the short passing game, the weakside linebacker forced a North Carolina fumble. He fills in nicely and is a sound tackler. The sophomore backs up his linemen well and gets in the mix at the line of scrimmage. He was all over any pass play on the flat to a back or tight end. Gruder recorded a game-high 11 tackles. Mason had good coverage and showed solid hands on his third and goal interceptions, just outside the goal line. He fills the hole well and wraps up when he gets there. There is a lot to like about this young linebacker. Sophomore Greg Williams (three tackles) was relatively quiet, but is another piece to what should be a stellar defense in 2010. Senior MIKE Adam Gunn made seven tackles, but he’s in trouble when engaged with blockers. Gunn lacks speed and isn’t very big (230 pounds), lacking the measurables to play at the next level. Another senior, corner Aaron Berry didn’t do much to help his stock this season. He has put up decent numbers but isn’t very big (180 pounds) and he doesn’t possess the breakaway speed NFL teams look for in their defensive backs, which is why he won’t be able to play man-to-man at the next level. He did make a great read, dropping back into the end zone, making it a tougher throw for the quarterback. Berry will likely get a look as a priority free agent for a team that plays predominately zone coverage in the secondary.

* Decision Time:
The North Carolina Tar Heels have four very talented juniors—defensive tackle Marvin Austin, outside linebacker Bruce Carter, middle linebacker Quan Sturdivant and safety Deunta Williams—who could be first or second round picks should they declare for the 2010 NFL Draft—all four could go, but none of the four has to go.

Most evaluators would list Austin as possessing the most potential of the group. He can be such a force at the point of attack, twice tackling Lewis after a short gain. He is so quick and explosive for a man of his size (6’3” and 305 pounds). Using that quickness, Austin exploded into the backfield and got to Lewis at the goal line, but missed the tackle—he blew up the play, which resulted for no gain, but it could have been a better play. That epitomizes Austin, glimpses of greatness, but more often than not leaving you wanting more. At times, he gets blocked one-on-one by average players, which shouldn’t happen with his ability.

Normally consistent performers, neither Carter nor Sturdivant were very impressive from their linebacker positions. Each made four total tackles—three solos by Sturdivant and one solo by Carter—with no interceptions, pass breakups, sacks or tackles for a loss. The 6’3” and 230-pound Carter is normally a big playmaker, but wasn’t very active versus Pitt. In the second half he made a great open field tackle on Pittsburgh’s Dickerson, where he got to show off his sideline-to-sideline speed. Sturdivant did a nice job of covering Dickerson on a passing play with the Pittsburgh playmaker coming out of the backfield after having lined up at fullback. He’s an effective blitzer, who plays a hard and relentless brand of football—he will make plays on the other side of the field—but more was expected of the junior MIKE. You wonder if the physical power attack of Pittsburgh was something the Tar Heels weren’t ready for and neutralized their speed and athleticism. We have been big fans of both Carter and Sturdivant, and while one game doesn’t tell the whole story, if they are thinking of making the jump, one would have expected a better effort.

Williams didn’t turn in his best performance of the season either. The junior safety allowed Dickerson to run right by him on a potential touchdown, which Dickerson dropped. Williams interfered on the play and not very well, as Dickerson still got in the open and the ball hit him on the hands. Williams was not very physical and on one missed tackle he was simply sloppy, not wrapping up on the ball carrier after attacking the line of scrimmage. He displayed good coverage ability, as he ran stride for stride with Baldwin, and positioned himself well between Baldwin and the ball, ensuring the Pittsburgh playmaker could not get to the football.

* The Senior Defensive Linemen: Defensive end E.J. Wilson had a good showing in his final game wearing Carolina Blue. The senior recorded five tackles, a sack and forced two fumbles. He is an all effort player, and his first forced fumble was due to that hustle—it came 30 yards down field at the UNC one-yard line just outside of the end zone as Lewis was headed for a score. On his sack, he blew by Pitt’s right tackle and got his hand on Stull to force fumble (Pitt retained possession). At 6’3” and 280 pounds, Wilson is also very strong and stout at the point of attack, which is why some view him as a potential 3-4 end at the next level.

Defensive tackles Cam Thomas and Aleric Mullins are rotation-type players. Thomas displayed nice pop off the snap. He is a legitimate run-stuffing space eater and a potential nose tackle at the next level. Thomas checks in 6’4” and 325 pounds. Not as big, but no small man is Mullins, who is 6’3” and 305 pounds. Mullins showed the ability to get pressure on the quarterback and he is capable of getting a push up the middle. Of the two, Thomas should get drafted, while Mullins may have to earn his way on to a roster as PFA.

* The Front Seven–Stars of Tomorrow:
Maybe the brightest star on the entire Tar Heels team regardless of class is sophomore defensive end Robert Quinn, however against Pittsburgh he was a non-factor other than one hit he got on the quarterback. Quinn had trouble getting by Pittsburgh’s left tackle (Pinkston). The sophomore is athletic with prototypical size (6’5 and 270 pound) and should begin the 2010 season on many preseason All-American lists. Fellow sophomores Quinton Coples and Michael McAdoo should be back as well, with Coples the likely man to replace Wilson in the starting rotation. In the fourth quarter, he got good pressure coming off the edge to force Stull out of the pocket and on the next play, Coples picked up a sack. The end is quick and explosive getting into the backfield. Quinn, Coples (6’6” and 275 pounds) and McAdoo (6’7” and 245 pounds) would make a fine frontcourt for Roy Williams on the hardwood. Should Austin make the jump to the NFL, they still possess a former four-star recruit in red-shirt sophomore Tydreke Powell (6’3” and 300 pounds). At outside linebacker sophomore Zach Brown and freshman Kevin Reddick are two more talented defenders. Brown made two tackles, while Reddick finished the game strong, making several plays in the second half. The freshman has good size and speed; he’s a sure tackler versus the run and very comfortable near the line of scrimmage.

* The Defensive Backs: Joining Williams in the UNC secondary were a trio of juniors—strong safety Da’Norris Searcy, along with corners Kendrick Burney and Charles Brown. Burney, a two-year starter is also considering making himself available for the 2010 Draft, but would be wise to return. He was beat one-on-one by Baldwin early on, who used a stiff arm, but otherwise had a solid night. Burney likes to play near the line of scrimmage and is an excellent tackler who his capable of getting in the backfield. Burney (4 tackles, 1 TFL) can deliver a big hit once he bursts through on a run blitz. Brown (5 tackles, 1 TFL) was also active throughout the contest. He had good coverage on a deep route by Baldwin on pass to the end zone. With Pittsburgh backed up at their own end zone (at the two-yard), the junior cover man stayed with Baldwin down the field, one-on-one, with no help. He also made a big time play getting underneath the block of the right guard on screen pass and wrapped up well on Lewis—read and react. The only blemish on the night was a dropped interception. The least heralded of the Carolina defensive backs is Searcy, who probably had the best game of the bunch. The strong safety made eight tackles, six of the solo variety to lead the team. He did a great job beating a Dickerson block to make play in the backfield going wide. Later, he had good pass coverage on Dickerson. The junior can also creep up and make a play near line of scrimmage and deliver a big hit against the run. Searcy returns kicks (93 yards on 4 returns) and punts (28 yards on 2 returns) as well for the Heels, adding value. He is an underrated football player.

* The Carolina Offense:
The best offensive player for the Tar Heels was junior wide receiver Greg Little. The first offensive play for UNC was an end around to Little for a 31-yard gain. The former running back is a player the Heels can’t get the ball to enough. He made several outstanding catches, capable of going up to get the ball and catch it at its highest point. Little is an impressive athlete, who is developing as a wide receiver—he has good hands and catches the ball away from his body, which is what you want to see. Little caught seven passes for 87 yards and two touchdowns, numbers which could have been bigger with better quarterback play. Little went over 60 receptions for fifth best single-season in school history. This was the first game in which Little had multiple touchdown receptions.

“For the first time Greg Little got to play the position for a full year for the position we recruited him to play,” Davis said afterwards. “When we recruited him to play, we said this is a prototypical, big time wide receiver. He is big, he's strong, he has great hands, he has run after catch. He didn't know anything about being a receiver. We wasted a lot of time trying to make a running back out of him just to get some speed at that position.”

Freshman wideout Erik Highsmith is the up and comer on the UNC offense. He can make things happen after the catch—quick acceleration and strong running with the football. But he also had a bad fumble—when turning up field the freshman needs to secure the ball better. Another pass catcher who could have a breakout 2010 season is junior tight end Zack Pianalto. In addition to his two receptions for 26 yards, Pianalto made a nice one-handed grab for a would-be touchdown, which was negated by an illegal formation penalty. He has soft hands and is a good athlete, who can make things happen after the catch. UNC moved the junior around—he lined up at split back and in the backfield. He needs to get bigger and stronger—he had no chance to block Romeus when asked to do so one-on-one.

The running game centers around power back Ryan Houston, who is built like a brick house (6’2” and 245 pounds). Houston is limited, purely a between the tackles runner, but he is good at what he does. The junior is a physical runner and once he gets his momentum going he is difficult to bring down—he either breaks the tackle or will at the very least fall forward. Typically, he won’t make many tacklers miss in the backfield, although he made nice cutback to make Romeus miss—it looked like he surprised the Pitt defensive end. Houston is an excellent short yardage back and often gives that second effort to get the yardage that is needed. He is tough to deal with late in games as a defense gets worn down.

Photos Courtesy of University of Pittsburgh, Dennis Hubbard & UNC Athletic Communications