Senior running back Ray Graham planted his left foot into the ground and juked right, faking…
Senior running back Ray Graham planted his left foot into the ground and juked right, faking Virginia Tech’s Kyshoen Jarrett to the ground. Graham beat all other Hokie defenders to the pylon for the first-drive touchdown.
Pitt never looked back from that early touchdown, cruising out to a 21-0 lead. Both the offense and the defense came up with big plays when they needed to as the Panthers took home their first win of the season, 35-17, over No. 13 Virginia Tech at Heinz Field on Saturday afternoon.
“It’s always good when you get off to a fast start,” first-year head coach Paul Chryst said. “Any time you move the ball down the field and score, it’s a great way to start a game. You’d like to do it every time.”
The Panthers’ second scoring drive followed the same pattern as their first — combining a strong running game and timely passes — and Pitt doubled its lead when senior quarterback Tino Sunseri found Devin Street for a 13-yard touchdown after the junior receiver beat his man.
Sunseri had one of the top games of his career, completing 19-of-28 passes for three touchdowns and 283 yards.
“He threw the ball very, very well,” Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer said of Sunseri. “He was on the money, and anytime there is that much success, I think we helped him a bit.”
Pitt’s defense then forced several turnovers as the Panthers took control of the game.
Chryst credited his defense for recording three interceptions and recovering a fumble.
“Why do you get an [interception]? It has everything to do with everyone on the field,” he said. “It can be a defensive back away from the ball. It can be pressure on the quarterback. Those picks are team takeaways.”
After Graham scored his second touchdown of the game, Beamer turned to a hurry-up offense, and Virginia Tech was able to get its first points with a 32-yard field goal by Cody Journell. That ended the first half’s scoring as the Panthers took a surprise 21-3 lead into the break.
Virginia Tech regained some momentum when Jarrett fielded a punt from the 6-yard line and raced down the right sideline for the Hokies’ first touchdown.
Down 21-10, the Hokies drove to the Pitt 35-yard line looking to score again. But the Pitt defense stacked Virginia Tech rushers up twice at the line of scrimmage, forcing a turnover on downs.
“We needed that,” redshirt junior linebacker Shane Gordon said of that stop. “Momentum swings when you do stuff like that. That changed the other team. We got our offense back on the field, and we were hyped.”
Riding the defense’s momentum, the offense drove back down the field thanks to running back Rushel Shell. The talented freshman had a coming-out party Saturday, going for 159 yards on 23 carries, but he’s already looking forward to next week.
“This is something to get us right back on track,” Shell said after the game. “We got to stop looking at the past. We won — it’s over with. We got to start looking to next week.”
Sunseri then found Graham on a wheel route out for an 18-yard touchdown, the running back’s third score of the game.
But Virginia Tech brought the deficit back to 11 points when quarterback Logan Thomas found Marcus Davis over the middle, and the receiver sprinted for an 85-yard touchdown.
On the second play of the final quarter, Sunseri took a huge hit and threw an interception, but he returned on the next drive as the Panthers capped off the impressive victory.
“He’s a leader,” Shell said of Pitt’s quarterback. “On and off the field, he’s a good guy. Today he showed everyone. He was hurt, came in and fought through that injury. We respect that. That’s something you want out of your quarterback.”
On Pitt’s final drive, Sunseri found Shanahan — who caught five catches for 111 yards on the day — for the touchdown in the back of the end zone.
The Panthers and their coach are comparing the season to a journey. While the win doesn’t erase the earlier losses, it does help the team view the struggles as something that built them to this point.
“You can’t get to one part of [the season] without getting through others,” Chryst said. “We did what we needed to do. Everything you go through builds you, and our guys responded today.”