Football: Pitt upsets No. 16 South Florida

By Lauren Kirschman

This time when the fourth quarter came around, the Pitt football team held strong.

In the… This time when the fourth quarter came around, the Pitt football team held strong.

In the first four games this season, the Panthers developed a habit of dropping off in the last 15 minutes, losing leads against Iowa and Notre Dame and allowing both Buffalo and Maine to tighten the scores.

But after scoring two touchdowns in the third quarter to build a 34-17 lead against No. 16 South Florida last night, Pitt added a touchdown, a field goal and forced two fumbles in the fourth to upset the previously undefeated Bulls 44-17.

The win marked the Panthers’ first victory over a ranked team since they defeated then-No. 10 South Florida 26-21 on the road in 2008.

“We just felt that if we could come in and execute our offense … and clean it up, then we could really score some points and stop some people,” Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri said. “A lot of people have been talking about how it’s been coming and we’ve been getting closer and closer, and we finally did it.”

It seemed that just in time for the Big East opener, Pitt found the ideal game plan: Give the ball to Ray Graham and watch him go.

Graham racked up 268 all purpose yards— 226 rushing and 42 receiving—and two touchdowns on 26 carries and four receptions.

“He actually played better than he has ever played,” Todd Graham said. “I thought it was his best performance … This kid’s competitiveness is off the charts.”

South Florida head coach Skip Holtz said Pitt did a good job of creating space for its running backs.

“Graham is quicker than he is fast and he is very elusive,” he said. “He has sideways, lateral movement. He has great vision and he can turn and go.”

And as Graham went, everyone else seemed to go, too. Pitt finished with 523 yards and ran 91 plays.

“We’re improving every game, getting better every game,” Ray Graham said. “Tino is feeling more confident, I’m feeling more confident, and they are even feeling more confident in this offense now.”

Sunseri looked more comfortable in the no-huddle offense, completing 22  of 33 passes for 216 yards and one touchdown. The quarterback got the chance to quiet his critics.

“No one is a harder critic than my father … My mom and my dad have been around football their whole lives at the highest level,” Sunseri said. “Believe me, I wasn’t getting anything sugar-coated.”

Head coach Todd Graham said Sunseri executed the system, looked decisive and got the ball out quickly — something he’s struggled with this season.

Sunseri said that he feels more comfortable.

“This was the first time I ever ran this kind of stuff in my life,” he said. “I was always a drop-back guy. I never had to do anything post-snap with the reading of the defensive ends.”

Pitt’s defense held the Bulls scoreless in the second half.

“We just imposed our will,” Pitt defensive tackle Chas Alecxih said. “I felt for the first time all season that we just clicked on defense. We were able to do exactly what we wanted. There was nobody doing their own thing. We just came together and it was super exciting.”

After going into the break with a 20-17 lead, the Panthers increased the lead on their first drive of the third quarter when Sunseri found tight end Hubie Graham twice at the end of the drive, first for a pick up of 18 yards and then for a 12-yard touchdown. After the extra point, Pitt led 27-17.

“That really set the tone for the rest of the half … We just said we’re shutting the door on them,” Alecxih said. “This isn’t going to be another Notre Dame, another Iowa.”

And Pitt didn’t stop there. Ray Graham continued his dominance by breaking free for a 29-yard run and then adding three yards to get to the 2-yard line. Zach Brown ran the ball in for a touchdown to put Pitt ahead 34-17.

Graham moved more than 200 yards in the fourth quarter with an 8-yard touchdown that gave Pitt a 41-17 lead. Harper added a 46-yard field goal to produce the final score.

After right guard Lucas Nix went down in the first half, Pitt redshirt sophomore Ryan Schlieper entered the game for his first appearance as a Panther.

South Florida took the lead on its first possession of the game on a Daniels rush into the end zone, but Sunseri answered soon after to tie the game at 7-7.

The Panthers took a 10-7 lead in the first quarter when Kevin Harper hit a 47-yard field goal. Then on Pitt’s first possession of the second quarter, Harper added a 39-yard field goal to make the score 13-7.

The Bulls took their final lead of the game, 14-13, as running back Demetris Murray found the end zone for a 7-yard touchdown. Soon after, Sunseri and Graham led a drive that ended with a Graham rush into the end zone to put Pitt ahead 20-14.

South Florida drove down the field in the final minute of the first half, cutting Pitt’s lead to 20-17 with a 34-yard Maikon Bonani field goal.

“We are winning every day with these players,” Todd Graham said. “We are developing something really special, but we have a long way to go.”