By WILL GRAVES, AP Sports Writer
PITTSBURGH (AP) _ After watching his team limp to a pair of losses to Rutgers and Utah that included all of one offensive touchdown, Pitt coach Todd Graham decided it was time to give his players a history lesson, a very recent one.
A year ago, Connecticut lost its first two Big East games then ripped off five straight to claim the conference title and earn the school’s first trip to the Fiesta Bowl.
There’s no reason the Panthers (3-4, 1-1 Big East) can’t do the same, Graham said.
“It’s just about a belief in yourself, a belief in your team,” Graham said.
Of course, Pitt is hardly the only team looking for inspiration in the wide-open Big East.
The Huskies (3-4, 1-1) _ who travel to Heinz Field in a rare Wednesday night game– think they’re still alive too despite a
sometimes bumpy coaching transition from Randy Edsall to Paul Pasqualoni.
The Huskies, like the Panthers, have had major difficulty getting to the end zone. UConn hasn’t scored an offensive touchdown since losing to Western Michigan more than three weeks ago.
Yet the Huskies found a way to beat reeling South Florida 16-10 on Oct. 15, the kind of solid if not aesthetically pleasing victory the program racked up with regularity under Edsall.
Now UConn thinks it’s right back in it. Another loss for either team, however, and it likely means the opposite.
“It’s definitely a big game for both of us,” UConn quarterback Johnny McEntee said. “It could turn either of our seasons around, so it’s important we come out with a win.”
Something both teams need badly. Pitt appeared to have discovered the rhythm of Graham’s “high octane” offense a month ago in a 44-17 pasting of USF, a game in which the Panthers rolled up 523 total yards. They’ve managed 391 in the eight quarters since, including a paltry 120 in a 26-14 loss to Utah.
Graham promised to regroup and stop the two-quarterback tango between junior Tino Sunseri and freshman Trey Anderson, giving Sunseri a vote of confidence even though he’s thrown for more interceptions (seven) than touchdowns (five) and spent most of the season running for cover behind one of the worst offensive lines in the country.
Pitt has allowed 34 sacks this season, easily the most in the nation. The shuffling will continue on Wednesday depending on whether left tackle Lucas Nix can return from a knee injury.
Graham believes the Panthers have used their mini-bye week to gain some consistency and is hopeful Sunseri can bounce back if the line can give him time to throw.
“I haven’t gotten down,” Sunseri said. “I know what this offense can do. We’ve shown it. We’ve just got to show it more often.”
The Huskies could say the same thing.
Pasqualoni joked this week that UConn fans should “Occupy Heinz” and fill up the stadium with white-and-blue. He’d prefer the Huskies occupy the end zone.
The offense hasn’t been there since Oct. 1, and UConn is last in the Big East in total yards and seventh in scoring offense.
“”We’re still very confident because we move the ball when we need to,” McEntee said. “We just somehow can’t finish in the red zone. Yeah, we’ve been doing a lot of work in the red zone and also third down, because we were struggling with that earlier in the year.”
The Huskies weren’t expected to light up the scoreboard. Graham insisted the Panthers could despite the coaching change. Yet he has scaled back implementing the system he used so successfully at Tulsa.
Graham said in the preseason the playbook would go “A-to-M” instead of “A-to-Z.” Right now, he’d settle for “A-to-B.”
Getting running back Ray Graham more involved would help. He carried it a season-low 12 times against Utah while Pitt threw 30 passes, completing just nine.
It led to one of the most anemic performances in recent memory. All of that can be erased with a strong finish to the season, starting against the Huskies.
“I like where we’re at, I like how our team has responded,” Todd Graham said. “We’re still right there.”
Associated Press writer Pat Eaton-Robb in Storrs, Conn., contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)