BUFFALO, N.Y. —
Rushel Shell welcomed the wind and the rain, because he understood the conditions were ideal for the Pittsburgh Panthers to find a spark from their sagging run game.
Shell and fellow running back Ray Graham were up to the task, scoring a touchdown each in helping Pitt snap a two-game losing streak with a 20-6 win over the Buffalo Bulls in a non-conference game on a slick and blustery late Saturday afternoon.
“Me and Ray got pretty excited about the rain, so we just knew that sometime in the game it was going to depend on us,” Shell said. “It was pretty fun.”
Shell scored on a 4-yard run and had 40 yards rushing plus a 41-yard catch off a screen pass that set up one of Kevin Harper’s two field goals. Graham finished with 70 yards rushing and scored on a 7-yard run.
The Panthers (3-4), in their final Big East Conference season, avoided their first 2-5 start since 2001 and improved to 4-0 all-time against Buffalo and 29-3 against Mid-American Conference opponents.
Pitt’s 126 yards rushing were 6 more than the team combined for in its previous two games.
“Rain, sleet, snow, any weather, you’ve got to come ready to play,” Graham said. “It felt good. You know we’re not where we need to be yet, but a win is a win.”
It was a familiar close-but-no-victory lament for Buffalo (1-6), the ever struggling MAC program that has lost five straight and is guaranteed finishing no better than .500 for the 15th time in 16 years.
At least the Bulls were far more competitive a week after they were blown out 45-3 at Northern Illinois.
“I try to make sense of the way we’re being tested the way we are now,” said coach Jeff Quinn, whose record dropped to 6-25 since taking over in 2010. “We had our chances. We had our opportunities. We just didn’t capitalize on them.”
Buffalo freshman Devin Campbell rushed for 104 yards, and John Dunmore had seven catches for 72 yards. Quarterback Alex Zordich went 23 of 41 for 165 yards and an interception, which led to Shell’s score, which put Pitt ahead 13-0 midway through the second quarter.
With 22 first downs and 334 yards offense, the Bulls had the edge in numerous offensive statistics but not the final score. They were instead undone by a lack of finish in a game in which they settled for one field goal despite three trips inside the Panthers’ 20.
It didn’t help that the Bulls were minus their top two offensive threats. Running back Branden Oliver (week to week with right leg injury) missed his fourth straight game, while receiver Alex Neutz did not play after being shaken up last week.
“It’s frustrating. There’s really no other word for it,” Zordich said. “You look at the numbers, and you think you would win the game. It’s just frustrating. We’re all tired of it.”
Leading 13-6, the Panthers took control on their second possession of the second half when Graham scored to cap a nine-play, 58-yard drive.
Panthers quarterback Tino Sunseri, the Big East’s most efficient passer this season, sparked the drive by hitting all four passes for 50 yards.
Sunseri went 9 of 17 for 128 yards.
The Panthers’ defense bounced back in limiting Buffalo to two field goals. That came a week after Pitt allowed Louisville to score 24 points in an 11:02 span in a 45-35 loss to the Cardinals.
Dan Mason, making his first start in two years filling in for injured middle linebacker Shane Gordon (high ankle sprain), had 11 tackles and one of the team’s three sacks, while Jason Hendricks had an interception.
The Panthers’ up-and-down season has featured a season-opening loss to Youngstown State, an FCS program, and an upset then-No. 13 Virginia Tech 35-17.
Perhaps, this was the type of all-around performance that can provide Pitt the momentum coach Paul Chryst was looking for from his team in opening the second half of its season.
“By no means was it a perfect game,” Chryst said. “But maybe we can go back and say that we had to go win, and every group had to be a part of it. And hopefully we can grow from that.”