Before the 1981 season it looked as if Pittsburgh had a bad case of the shorts. Although the Panthers still had junior Quarterback Dan Marino, a Heisman Trophy candidate, they had lost 15 other starters from last year's 11-1 squad that had finished second in both national polls and led the country in total defense. In all, 19 players from the '80 team, including first-round draft picks Hugh Green, Randy McMillan and Mark May, had signed NFL contracts. "Take the guys we lost, draft to fill a few gaps and in two years you'd have a Super Bowl defense," said Defensive Coordinator Foge Fazio wistfully.
Florida State also found itself shorthanded. The Seminoles, coming off a 10-2 year, had lost 14 starters, eight of them pro signees, and of the players who were returning, the most highly regarded was a punter, Rohn Stark. Worse, Florida State faced a schedule that called for successive road games against Nebraska, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Pitt and LSU. "Our Oktoberfest," Coach Bobby Bowden labeled it. "The alumni love it—but they aren't the ones who get fired."
Nonetheless, going into last Saturday's game at Pitt Stadium, the Seminoles were 4-1 and coming off upsets of Ohio State and Notre Dame, while Pittsburgh was 4-0 and had extended the nation's longest major-college winning streak to 11. Suddenly Florida State-Pitt was important enough to attract scouts from five bowls—including the Sugar, Cotton and Orange—and stir up talk of a national championship for the winner. "We ain't plowed but half the field yet, and the soil's going to get harder," said Bowden, well aware that the Seminoles' 36-22 defeat of Pittsburgh in 1980 probably had cost the Panthers the national title. "We've both been overlooked," said Pitt Coach Jackie Sherrill before the game. "Whoever wins this one is Cinderella for this season."
For the Seminoles, the clock struck midnight shortly after the 1:30 kickoff time Saturday afternoon. Pittsburgh not only piled up 503 yards of total offense and forced five turnovers, but by averaging nearly 30 yards per punt return, the Panthers also effectively neutralized Stark, who had kept other Florida State opponents bottled up with his booming kicks, which had been averaging 45.5 yards. Junior Halfback Bryan Thomas, who is known around Pittsburgh as the B.T. Express, became the first Pitt runner since Tony Dorsett to gain 200 yards in a game, finishing with 217 on 23 carries, and Marino passed for 251 yards and three touchdowns despite a bruised right shoulder. When it was over, the Panthers had won 42-14. "What we've got," said Fazio, "is a bunch of apprentices trying to imitate their old teachers and doing one hell of a good impersonation."
Unfortunately for the Panthers, during the first 9½ minutes on Saturday they bore all too striking a resemblance to the team that had turned the ball over seven times in Tallahassee last October. Marino's first pass was intercepted, and on the next series, Pittsburgh fumbled away a punt on its own 33. Marino, the nation's leading passer going into the game, was excusably rusty; he had sat out Pitt's win over West Virginia a week earlier because of the soreness in his shoulder and had thrown only lightly in practice. His teammates were simply too tense, though also with good reason: They're young—only four seniors start—and the Florida State game was easily their biggest so far in '81. With apologies to the Cincinnatis and Syracuses on the Panthers' schedule, the game with the Seminoles counted for one-half of Pitt's season. The other half: the Panthers' Nov. 28 matchup with Penn State.
It was left to senior Linebacker Sal Sunseri, whom Fazio calls "the heart, soul and brains of our defense," to put an end to Pitt's jitters. With Florida State fourth-and-one on the Panthers' two-yard line following the fumbled punt, Sunseri remembered something: "In that situation they always go to the fullback, [Mike] Whiting. I've seen it on all their old films." Ah yes, the films, but we'll get to that later. Sunseri immediately began yelling to his teammates, "Watch Whiting! Watch Whiting!" They did, along with the 55,112 spectators who saw Whiting charge straight into the maw of the Pitt defense and gain six inches. At that, the Panthers were being uncharacteristically charitable; through their first four games they had allowed an average of four inches per rush to lead the nation in stinginess. Thus inspired, the Pitt offense proceeded to take the ball 99 yards in the other direction and score the Panthers' first touchdown on a 22-yard pass to Fullback Wayne DiBartola.
After losing nine of 1980's defensive starters, Fazio and Sherrill have rebuilt the Pitt defense into a smaller and more cohesive unit, but they essentially left its style unchanged. "I classify defenses as either 'read' defenses, which sit back and react, or 'pressure' defenses," says Bowden. "Pitt plays pressure defense—aggressive, swarming, blitzing, forcing you into mistakes. Whatever you're doing, you better do it fast or else you'll be looking at second-and-15."
"Their secondary never really gets tested," adds West Virginia Coach Don Nehlen, whose Mountaineers were shut out (17-0) by the Panthers. "A quarterback has to rush and throw before he gets buried."
Replacing defensive ends Green (now starting for Tampa Bay) and Ricky Jackson (now with New Orleans) are 6'6", 220-pound freshman Chris Doleman (all right, they're not all smaller), who leads the Panthers with seven sacks, and junior Michael Woods, who dumped the passer on three successive downs in Pitt's 42-28 win over South Carolina. Both spent much of the afternoon in the Florida State backfield, as did Linebacker Rich Kraynak, the game's leading tackier with 13. Woods, like Green, is from Natchez, Miss., and by Green's account is the quicker of the two. One explanation for which might be that Woods's North Natchez High coach carried a lead pipe around during practice.
Pitt's middle three defensive linemen, Tackles Dave (The Freak) Puzzuoli and Bill Maas and Middle Guard J.C. Pelusi, have been so effective that they've acquired the nickname the Pac-Men. "You know, like the video game with those little monsters that eat the dots, except our guys eat offensive backs," says Sunseri. Puzzuoli, who is variously described by teammates as "a psycho," "a madman" and just plain "crazy," is a proper successor to Tackle Greg Meisner (now of the Rams), who last year ate a live worm to win a $3 bet. "Puzzuoli would've eaten the $3, too," says one of his Panther teammates.
Sunseri, though, is the Pitt leader and big-play man, as he showed only three plays after the Panthers had scored their first touchdown against Florida State. On third-and-10 at the Seminole 20, Florida State quarterback, Rick Stockstill, dropped back to pass. "That was another one I saw on the films," said Sunseri. "I knew he was going to go to the back coming across. I just waited in the middle and, sure enough, Stockstill threw it right into my arms." Sunseri, an emotional type, returned the ball 22 yards for the score, but was so busy holding it above his head that Stockstill nearly caught him from behind.
Sunseri is dedicated to football. Last summer, for example, he worked out with weights for 4½ hours a day. Every night he brings a few teammates to his parents' home, which is 15 minutes from campus, for dinner, and at least once a year he stages a hot-sausage roast for the whole team, with the help of his father, Anthony, a wholesale grocer who claims to sell more imported Italian food than anyone else in Pennsylvania. And, oh yes, he watches films. Oh my, yes. "My girl friend always says I must be cheating on her, because she never sees me," says Sunseri.
That girl friend might try checking Sunseri's dorm room on any given night; there she would see him and his three non-football-playing roommates—most notably a short, skinny psych major with glasses and a receding hairline who's known simply as Forehead—look at game films for two hours. "Forehead motivates me," says Sunseri. "We'll be watching and he'll point to some guy on the opposing team and say, 'He's going to get you, he's going to nail you.' Then I have to beat him up. Or else I pretend that he's the opposing player and we go at it." No one doubts that Forehead, too, is dedicated to Pitt football.
If Sunseri's interception return hadn't stunned Florida State enough, an 83-yard punt return for a touchdown midway through the second quarter left the Seminoles reeling. Panther sophomore Tom Flynn, one of Marino's roommates, took Stark's kick at the Pitt 17 and watched virtually the entire Florida State coverage unit fly right past him. "They were coming too aggressively," he said. "I saw a little crease in the middle, went for it, and all of a sudden I was coming through a tunnel." Even after the Seminoles intercepted Marino a second time and drove 50 yards for a TD, there was little light at the end of their tunnel, as they faced a 21-7 halftime deficit.
With two quarters remaining, Marino had already completed enough passes—eight of 17 for 115 yards—to break Pitt career records for completions (308) and yardage (4,219). "Danny's more advanced at this stage than either Joe [Namath] or Kenny [Stabler]," says Sherrill, who was a linebacker with both quarterbacks at Alabama. "He's the best pure passer in the country." Indeed, Marino seems to have almost everything going for him. He's 6'4" and 215, a poised dropback passer with experience running a pro-set offense and has exceptional ability in reading defensive alignments. Against Cincinnati, a 38-7 Panther win, Marino audibled on 50% of Pitt's plays, an astonishingly high percentage for a college quarterback. "He's a pro quarterback playing in college, really," says Bowden.
Marino came out firing in the second half and quickly put the game away. Twice in the opening 2½ minutes he hit Split End Julius Dawkins for touchdowns, covering 65 and 18 yards. The first came on a "66" route that allowed Dawkins to show off his straightaway speed, while the second was off a fake bootleg by Marino.
Dawkins, who leads the nation in TD catches with nine, had only 16 career receptions before this season. He traces his improvement to a week spent last June in Vidalia, Ga., on a farm owned by Steeler Cornerback Mel Blount. Blount had met Dawkins through a mutual friend and invited the Pitt junior from Monessen, Pa. to come down for a combined work-football-basketball seminar. In the daytime Dawkins learned how to pick peas and watermelons—"One day we filled a whole tractor-trailer with melons," he says—and in the evening he practiced pass patterns against his host with Blount's nephew doing the throwing. "I beat Mel sometimes," says Dawkins, "but I just learned so much. He gave me insight into the mind of a defensive back." With a name like Julius Dawkins, a guy has no choice but to play basketball, too. "They had a sawdust court," he says. "You ever try to dribble on that stuff? It was awful; it messes up your clothes, gets in your ears, gets in your mouth, gets everywhere."
Dawkins, who's 6'3", 187, may take as much pride in his blocking as his pass catching, and he doesn't like to miss an opportunity to spring a teammate loose downfield. With Pitt ahead 35-7 on Saturday, Thomas broke a counter-trap play for 44 yards, only to be scolded back in the huddle by Dawkins for not having taken advantage of the interference Dawkins was eager to provide.
Late in the fourth quarter, after Florida State had narrowed the score to 35-14 with an 89-yard touchdown drive, the B.T. Express burst through on another counter play. "B.T, get behind me. Hurry up!" instructed Dawkins. This time Thomas paid heed—and ended up with a 70-yard gain. "I got him the extra 25 yards," said Dawkins, smiling broadly at the thought. Six plays later Thomas took a pitchout from Marino and swept six yards into the right corner of the end zone to score the final TD and clinch the game ball.
There was—as so often seems the case with teams from Pittsburgh, no matter what the sport—a strong feeling of family in the Panther locker room after the game. "Last year we did it on talent," said Sunseri. "This season we're doing it on feeling, on love for each other." At which point he invited all the Pitt starters over to his house for a spaghetti dinner, "just for a little celebration." Of which there may be many more before Pitt finishes its rebuilding year.