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Panther Hollow: Time To Tip Cap To Tino

PITTSBURGH (93-7 THE FAN) -- I don't mean to make out Saturday's soggy series of events to be anything more than what they produced: an impressive victory over an unimpressive opponent.

I'm not wanton enough to ask the masses who still made it to Heinz Field--home of one of the most tortured fan bases in major college football--for any favors.

Expect, maybe, this one:

Give your quarterback a break.

I know, I know. Tino Sunseri is still the same player who made "High Octane" look like my father's old lawnmower.

He's still the same quarterback who has had trouble with the deep ball, has taken ill-timed sacks, and has missed easy targets.

He's probably not the best quarterback in his conference. Years from now, he might not even be remembered as the best quarterback on his own roster (here's looking at you, Chad).

He's not the second coming of Marino. He may not even be the second coming of Trocano (go ahead, kids...that's what Wikipedia is there for...).

But he is responsible for re-routing the Panthers' season with a 47-17 flattening of Temple during which the offense spent most the rainy day on cruise control, with the windshield wipers at full speed, speed, speed (sorry, old habits die hard), and three uninspiring Big East defeats in the rear-view mirror.

The redshirt senior is also the player who has made perhaps the most palpable progress of any under the guidance of new coaches Paul Chryst and offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph.

"He's making all the right decisions, and when you do that, you're going to keep the ball away from the other team. He's played great all year for us, and he's somebody we can turn to," said center Ryan Turnley.

It was only a year ago they couldn't. Sunseri threw 11 interceptions against just ten TD's, and finished sixth in the conference with a passer efficiency rating of 124.1.

"Some of that stuff wasn't his fault. But it all falls on the quarterback, and he knows that. That's why I call him a warrior, because he just responds to it, and he doesn't let it get to his head," wide receiver Devin Street said. "This year he's proving he is an elite quarterback, and if he has time, he can make all the throws in the world."

Hyperbole? Maybe. Then again, maybe it's time for the naysayers to take a world view of Tino's contributions.

On Saturday, his fifth consecutive game without a pick, Sunseri threw for 321 yards and three scores on 20-of-28 passing. He ranks second in the Big East in yardage and first in efficiency (164.8), sitting eighth nationally in the latter category. He is on pace to finish his final season with 3,300 yards, 20 touchdowns, and just three INT's.

"I think the biggest thing is...he's just staying consistent. He's making the right reads, he knows where the ball is supposed to go. As long as he has protection, and we get open, he's going to do well," Street said.

Protection has been the most uncertain of those factors. The Panthers entered Saturday having allowed the second-most sacks of any Big East squad, but, despite losing Ryan Schlieper to an eventual season-ending foot injury, Arthur Doakes entered seamlessly, and they allowed only one.

As Sunseri stayed upright, so did fellow senior Ray Graham, who finished with three scores, including one from the quarterback, and 180 all-purpose yards.

"We wanted to keep growing as an offense, and make sure that, every time we got the ball, we took advantage of it," Sunseri said. "We have to keep understanding what wins games. It's getting first downs after first downs, then grinding it out, and really running the football."

It was as complete a game as Pitt has played all year, and it would not have been possible without perhaps the most maligned man in uniform since his debut as a starter two years back.

"It's making sure you understand what the defense is doing, making sure you understand how to get the ball out of your hands, and working as a cohesive unit. I feel like, each week, we're making those decisions that put ourselves in successful situations," Sunseri explained.

By ousting the Owls, the Panthers killed two massive birds with one large stone. It cracked the goose egg on the left side of their conference ledger, and it got them one step closer to flying somewhere hopefully a lot nicer than a water-logged North Shore come the holidays.

Believe it or not, Sunseri is the man, right now, who gives this team the best chance to reach its 2012 goals. He's gaining the trust of his teammates, he's making meaningful plays, and he's minimizing damage.

Some might say he performed out of character this past weekend. I say it's time for Pitt fans, for this week, anyway, to do something out of character:

Tip your cap to Tino.

(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)

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