Pitt offense picks up after slow half to win over Buffalo

By Lauren Kirschman

The first half of Todd Graham’s first game looked more 87 unleaded than high-octane.

Pitt… The first half of Todd Graham’s first game looked more 87 unleaded than high-octane.

Pitt defeated Buffalo 35-16 on Saturday night at Heinz Field, but the Panthers played like a team still adjusting to a system overhaul, especially in the first half when Pitt managed to put up just seven points.

“It didn’t surprise me. I wasn’t in a panic where we were,” Graham said of his team’s slow start. “I thought we responded well offensively in the second half. I thought we responded the other way defensively.”

The Panthers went into the break with a slim 7-3 advantage. Graham gathered the team before they went into the locker room, telling them to remain calm and that everything would be fine despite the offensive struggles.

“We ran 43 plays in the first half and only scored seven points,” Graham said. “That might be a record.”

Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri couldn’t find his mark in the first half as he consistently overthrew his receivers as they streaked downfield, most noticeably overthrowing a wide-open Cameron Saddler who had a clear path to the end zone in the first quarter.

“We’re really, really close,” Graham said. “If we hit those two long balls when we got a guy running with nobody on him then everyone is excited. We had probably in the first half 11 plays that we didn’t even run the play, we misread the play.”

Sunseri finished the first half with 91 yards on 10-of-21 passing, looking like a quarterback in his first half running a new offensive system.

“The biggest thing in the first half was that all my reads and everything were right,” Sunseri said. “That’s the positive thing that came out of the first half…We were able to go into halftime really just focusing on us. We came out in the second half feeling like if we were just able to focus in, just finish plays, we were going to be able to score points.”

But in the second half, both Sunseri and the rest of the Pitt offense appeared more comfortable and Sunseri finished the game with 179 yards on 16-28 passing and one touchdowns

Ray Graham led the rushing attack with 201 yards on 29 carries and three touchdowns. He averaged 6.9 yards per carry.

Pitt couldn’t establish much of a running game in the first half as Graham led the Panthers with 59 yards on 15 carries.

“There were holes [in the defense],” Ray Graham said. “It was me being hesitant. You just have to trust the holes. In the first half, there was a lot of pressure coming. I was looking for the pressure instead of looking at the holes.”

Chas Alecxih made what Todd Graham called the play of the game in the second half when he intercepted Buffalo quarterback Chazz Anderson and made a 47-return to set up the first points following the break.

“They ran [that play] earlier in the game and I didn’t cover it,” Alecxih said. “I got yelled at by my position coach. So the next time they ran it I made sure I covered it.”

Running back Ray Graham scored two plays later on a three-yard run to put the Panthers ahead 14-3. But it didn’t take Buffalo long to respond, scoring on an Anderson rush to the end zone soon after to cut the lead to 14-10.

But it didn’t take the Panthers long to score again either, as Sunseri connected with Shanahan on a 25-yard pass along the sideline that led to a Graham 5-yard run for a touchdown to put Pitt ahead 21-10.

Buffalo could have cut the Pitt advantage to three points after a Anderson connected with wide receiver Alex Neutz for a touchdown, but the Bulls couldn’t convert the extra point and Pitt took over with the score 21-16.

Soon after, Sunseri found wide receiver Mike Shanahan in the end zone to push the score to 28-16.

Graham sealed Pitt’s victory by breaking away for a 75 yard run late in the fourth quarter and then scoring on a one-yard run on the next play, producing the final score of 35-16. Shanahan said the team settled down in the second half.

“Even though we’ve tried to simulate games in practice, that was our first time running our offense in a game,” he said. “I think we’ll get a lot better.”

The Panthers’ only points in the first half came on a four-yard dash into the end zone by running back Zach Brown with 9:10 remaining in the first quarter.

Pitt kicker Kevin Harper missed two field goals, from 32-yards and 47-yards, to prevent the Panthers from extending their lead.

Buffalo took advantage of the misses as Bulls kicker Peter Fardon hit a 40-yard field goal with 4:33 remaining in the first half to the Pitt advantage to 7-3.

The Panthers finished with 410 yards and ran 66 plays, but only 21 plays in the second half. Buffalo ran 93 plays.

“Coach [Graham] said after the game [that] I played 80 snaps, which is the most I’ve ever played,” Alecxih said.

The pace of Graham’s new offense, and Buffalo’s similar speed, left many of the players winded. Todd Graham said right tackle Jordan Gibbs had trouble breathing in the first half and didn’t play much for the remainder of the game.