Expect the unexpected.
That might have been the motto of Pitt football fans after the Panthers upset 13th-ranked Virginia Tech 35-17 at Heinz Field on Saturday.
The impressive victory followed disappointing setbacks to Cincinnati in Week 2 and Youngstown State in the opener.
First-year Pitt head coach Paul Chryst could not hide his elation at his first win with the Panthers.
“I loved the way they competed,” Chryst said. “I’m really happy for the players and unbelievably proud. Things went the wrong way for us and we battled back.”
The Panthers, who lost their first two games by a combined 65-27, had another feel about them. They looked like a different team.
They dominated Virginia Tech, owning the game from the start. On their first possession, Pitt scored in only six plays. Senior quarterback Tino Sunseri threw a pass to Ray Graham, who ran it in for a touchdown.
Virginia Tech looked to match the Panthers but was halted when safety Jared Holley picked off Hokie quarterback Logan Thomas. He threw two more picks in the first half.
After that, the Hokies just couldn’t keep up. Two touchdowns later, Pitt pulled ahead 21-3.
“They came out the most prepared and they came out to play,” said Hokie redshirt freshman linebacker Ronny Vandyke. “We can’t just come out here, especially in an away game, thinking we’re just going to take it. We have to come out there fighting harder than our opponents. They fought harder than us.”
In the beginning of the second half, the momentum did shift slightly in Virginia Tech’s favor. Hokie Kyshoen Jarrett returned a punt 96 yards for a score, marking the second-longest punt return for a touchdown in Virginia Tech history.
Thomas also threw an 85-yard touchdown pass to Marcus Davis, making the score 28-17.
But this was too little too late.
Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer knew his offense needed to make big plays earlier in the game - and didn’t.
“I think some of it was Logan and some of it was the receivers,” he said. “Pittsburgh did a little bit of this and a little of that and we have to get our offense squared away.”
The Hokie run game also underperformed. They could not find a way to gain ground and had only 59 yards.
“No question, we need to run the ball better,” Beamer said. “We know how to win, we just have to learn from this game and get better.”
The Panthers’ running game, on the other hand, continued to shine. Pitt had 254 total rushing yards. True freshman Rushel Shell had an impressive game with 159 yards on 23 carries.
Overall, Pitt’s offense looked more balanced in both its running and passing game. Quarterback Tino Sunseri excelled in what was arguably his best game in quite some time. He was 19-for-28 for 283 yards and one interception.
He had no problem releasing the ball quickly and connected with receivers Devin Street and Mike Shanahan for big yards. Shanahan had a career-high 111 receiving yards and one touchdown. Street had 73 receiving yards with one touchdown.
Sunseri knew that in order to execute against a good Hokie defense, he had to trust himself and his receivers. By making big plays, he knew he could pump up Pitt’s defense.
“An offensive team needs to be able to go out and score points,” Sunseri said. “Because if you keep on scoring points, that defense keeps getting more and more confidence. We wanted to be able to have their backs.”
And the Panthers defense looked like it had that confidence. It forced a fumble and intercepted Virginia Tech quarterback Thomas three times.
In its last two games, the Panthers defense had trouble making stops on third down. The defense had no trouble Saturday. The Hokies offense only converted 5 of 13 third downs.
One of the biggest stops was when Pitt linemen Bryan Murphy and Shane Gordon sacked Thomas on third down, holding Virginia Tech to only a field goal.
Chryst said this is not the end of the Panthers’ story.
“It was one day against a very good Virginia Tech team and we made enough plays to win,” he said. “We have to keep it going.”
“We’re fighters, we’re never going to back down,” Street said. “We’re Pitt football. That’s part of our nature.”
The Panthers will play Gardner-Webb at home next week.
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