Pitt football takes down UConn 35-20

By Lauren Kirschman

When tailback Ray Graham injured his right knee and left the game on Pitt’s first drive… When tailback Ray Graham injured his right knee and left the game on Pitt’s first drive Wednesday night, the Panther offense could have shut down.

Instead, quarterback Tino Sunseri and the passing game took over.

Graham, who ranks second in the nation with 134.1 rushing yards per game, was carried off the field and carted to the locker room early in the first quarter. Graham has been one of the few positives for the Pitt offense and his loss, potentially for the season, is devastating to the Panthers’ attack.

But against the Huskies, Sunseri guided the Panthers to a 35-20 win over Connecticut at Heinz Field with a career-high 419 passing yards and two touchdowns on 29-42 passing.

Sunseri set the collegiate record at Heinz Field for passing yards, while also tying the fourth highest passing yard total in Pitt history. Rod Rutherford also threw for 419 yards against West Virginia in 2003.

“Whenever you lose a player like Ray Graham, it hurts a lot,” Sunseri said. “He’s a guy who’s in the locker room, he’s a vocal leader and he’s also one of the best backs in America. The way Ray is, he wanting to make sure we kept looking forward, kept on track and won this game.”

Ten days ago, Sunseri and backup quarterback Trey Anderson combined to complete just nine total passes for 40 yards.

Tailback Zach Brown led the Panthers in receiving with 84 yards on nine receptions. Receivers Mike Shanahan, Devin Street and Cameron Saddler finished with 76, 70 and 66 yards, respectively.

Pitt head coach Todd Graham said Sunseri found a rhythm against Connecticut, adding that’s what he’s used to the offense looking like.

“I was surprised that [419 yards] was a record,” he said. “We went back to the drawing board and some things I thought really helped him. The rhythm was really important and I think we kept them off balance. I think we were trying to do too much stuff [before] and that caused the problem. We simplified things.”

Sunseri said the Pitt offense took it as a personal challenge this week to work on making sure the receivers could get open and the offensive linemen were picking up the blitzes.

“[We worked on] making sure we were back in the pocket and making decisive decisions,” Sunseri said. “We felt if we could do those things we would have pass plays we could get off and we were able to.”

Shanahan said the receivers stayed after practice over the last 10 days.

“[We] just got a little extra work with the quarterbacks just to get the rhythm down and timing, stuff like that,” he said.

In Graham’s absence, Brown stepped in to not only lead the Panthers in receiving, but rush for 33 yards on 12 carries.

“He’s a really good receiver out of the backfield,” Todd Graham said. “That’s part of what we do. He made a lot of good catches and ran the ball hard.”

Pitt free safety Jarred Holley said the team expects other players to step up when injuries occur.

“Ray means so much to our team,” Holley said. “He’s one of the biggest parts of our team. But it’s a team sport. The great thing about our team is when one of our guys goes down, there’s always someone there to step up.”

Sunseri took the time to talk to Graham after his injury.

“I wanted to make sure he knew he was one of the toughest guys I knew and that I’m there for him whenever he needs me and that he knows what kind of person he is,” Sunseri said. “We have a really good friendship.”

Graham returned to the Pitt sideline on crutches with ice on his knee in the first half. After the break, he remained on crutches with a knee brace. Pitt officials don’t yet know the extent of the injury.

Todd Graham said that he doesn’t know the extent of Ray Graham’s injury but he was told the tailback couldn’t return to the game. Pitt’s star running back wasn’t the only Pitt player to suffer an injury against Connecticut as injuries affected the offensive line, including right guard Matt Rotheram who suffered an ankle injury and left the game.

Left tackle Lucas Nix didn’t dress due to a knee injury he suffered against South Florida.

After falling behind 21-3 in the first half, Connecticut came out strong in the third quarter.

The Huskies scored on their drive of the second half when blown coverage by Pitt left wide receiver Isiah Moore wide open along the sideline. Quarterback Johnny McEntee found Moore with a 62-yard touchdown pass, trimming Pitt’s lead to 21-10.

Connecticut cut Pitt’s lead to 21-13 when McEntee completed a pass to tight end Ryan Griffin to the 10-yard line. But after McEntee took a sack on third down, the Huskies had to settle for a 31-yard field goal that made the score 21-13.

“On a couple of those drives in the second half, if we would have played like that the whole game then I think we would have definitely come out with a win,” McEntee said.

Pitt defensive tackle Chas Alecxih said the Panthers weren’t going to let the game slip away.

“We had a lot of games this season when we let the team come back and we just put our foot down and said we weren’t going to let them do that,” he said.

Holley said that despite the attempted comeback by the Huskies, Pitt just kept “pressing on.”

“The coaches talked to us on the sideline and kept telling us to stop the run and react to the pass and that’s what we did,” he said.

The Panthers responded on their next drive, boosting their lead to 28-13 when Sunseri completed passes to Hubie Graham for 29 yards, Carswell for 13 yards and then hit Shanahan for a 27-yard touchdown.

Pitt added to their lead near the end of the fourth when Sunseri handed off to freshman receiver Ronald Jones, who completed a 14-yard pass to Street in the end zone.

Pitt’s defense played well overall, finishing with six sacks for 40 yards lost. Pitt racked up 529 total offensive yards, compared to 316 yards for the Huskies. Both teams ran 71 plays.

“Pitt was doing a pretty good job on coverage and we actually ran the ball pretty well the whole game.” McEntee said. “We had trouble passing in the first half and we couldn’t convert any third downs.”

Pitt scored on its first drive of the game. Graham broke through the Connecticut defense for an 18-yard run to the Pitt 48. He injured his knee on the next play, but the Panthers continued the drive. Sunseri completed a pass to Shanahan for 18 yards and then rushed for 11. Sunseri ran the ball into the end zone on the next play to give Pitt a 7-0 lead.

The Panthers took a 14-0 lead late in the fourth quarter when Sunseri found a wide-open Mike Shanahan down the middle for a touchdown.

Connecticut cut the Pitt lead to 14-3 midway through the second quarter with a 40-yard field goal, but Pitt scored again with 3:37 left in the first half on a three yard rush by Brown.

Connecticut scored with 43 seconds remaining in the game when McEntee found Ryan Griffin in the end zone with a 14 yard pass to produce the final 35-20 score.