MORGANTOWN - Tino Sunseri hasn't had much success against rival West Virginia, and the Mountaineers are well aware that their chances of beating Pittsburgh in the Backyard Brawl rest with shutting down the Panthers quarterback.Sunseri has shouldered the responsibilities of Pittsburgh's offense following the loss of Big East rushing leader Ray Graham to injury a month ago."He's elevated his game in the last few weeks,'' said West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen. "That's a tribute to coaching them and having a kid that buys into what you're doing.''Last year, Sunseri threw an early interception that led to a West Virginia touchdown in Pittsburgh's 35-10 loss in his only matchup against the Mountaineers.Sunseri will face a younger defense this time when Pittsburgh (5-5, 3-2 Big East) plays at West Virginia (7-3, 3-2) on Friday night.Sunseri's ups and downs have been a microcosm of Pittsburgh's season.In a 26-23 loss at home to Cincinnati on Nov. 5, Sunseri's fumble led to a Bearcats touchdown and he threw an interception just three plays later. He did drive the Panthers to the Cincinnati 33 with 14 seconds left in the game, though a potential game-tying field goal was wide.But last week he threw for one touchdown and ran for another in Pittsburgh's first road win of the season, 21-14 at Louisville. Two weeks before that, Graham suffered a season-ending knee injury against Connecticut, and Sunseri responded by throwing for a career-high 419 yards in the win.
"Whether it's previous successes or previous failures, you can't come to work every day and not try to get better,'' Holgorsen said. "It looks to me like he's bought in. He's trying to do everything he can to get better because it's shown up on tape.''Sunseri has completed 64 percent of his passes for nine touchdowns with eight interceptions. Sunseri also has one rushing touchdown in each of Pittsburgh's last three games, proving to be a difficult red-zone matchup for opponents."Their quarterback makes plays with his feet that you sometimes don't expect on certain plays, but he has the ability to do that as well,'' said West Virginia defensive lineman Julian Miller. "I think it's their quarterback that's kept the offense together.''Despite the Panthers' struggles on the scoreboard in last year's Backyard Brawl, Sunseri managed to move the ball, completing 28-of-46 passes for 284 yards against the Mountaineers.He'll be tested by a defense that's second in the conference against the pass, giving up 203 yards per game. "They look to depend a little more on Tino Sunseri now,'' said West Virginia defensive end Bruce Irvin. "Anything passing is my strength, you know. That's what I like to do, rush the passer.''