BY NATALIE BIGLEY
In the aftermath of Thanksgiving, Pitt has many reasons to be thankful.
The Panthers’ seniors had an outstanding performance in their last home game of the year and Pitt beat No. 18 Rutgers (9-2) on Saturday 27-6, keeping the team’s bowl hopes alive.
“Even though we’re 5-6, that record does not reflect the talent we have on this team,” said senior Andrew Taglianetti. “A great way to disprove our record is to beat South Florida and get to a bowl game.”
Both Pitt (5-6) and Rutgers (9-2) started out slowly. The game’s first score didn’t come until a 16-yard touchdown pass from Tino Sunseri to Mike Shanahan in the second quarter.
“We struggled early running the ball, but the guys did a good job of making some adjustments,” Pitt coach Paul Chryst said.
The Shanahan score led to a productive second quarter for the Panthers. By halftime, Pitt held a 21-0 lead.
“You’ve got to make plays and when you make plays I think it can be contagious,” Chryst said “That’s the key. You have to give guys a chance to make a play and guys have to finish it.”
Sunseri made plenty of good decisions on the field. He ended the game with 227 yards and two touchdowns. More impressive, Sunseri has thrown 245 consecutive passes without an interception – the longest active streak in Division I.
Pitt’s run game also excelled as it confused and ultimately beat a good Rutgers defense. Senior running back Ray Graham helped out on the ground and in the air with 50 receiving yards, 121 rushing yards and a touchdown.
That touchdown came in the second quarter, on a 9-yard rush. Graham leaped over defenders for the touchdown, which put the Panthers up 14-0.
Graham also made Pitt history. He became the Panthers’ third all-time leading rusher with 3,177 yards as Graham surpassed Craig Heyward (3,086). He needs only 16 yards to pass Curvin Richards (3,192) for second place. Tony Dorsett (6,526) is Pitt’s all-time leading rusher.
“It is a blessing,” Graham said. “I never take anything for granted. Just to be mentioned with all the greats is awesome. I am proud of my accomplishment, and we have a long way as a group, but all those individual stats don’t mean anything without my team. I am just very blessed to be acknowledged.”
But Pitt’s defense was arguably the real star of the game as the defensive line dominated and the secondary put together one of its better performances.
Rutgers rushed for 50 yards on 24 carries.
“They did a good job stopping the run,” Chryst said. “Going in there, we thought that was going to be big.”
Rutgers never got on track, and its offense took a hit when quarterback Gary Nova was shaken up on a play late in the first. Backup Chase Dodd played for the rest of the quarter.
Nova was back in the game in the second quarter, but he and his offense could not get anything going in the air. He was only 3 for 12 for 13 yards in the first half.
The Scarlet Knights’ luck did not change in the second half. Their only points came in the third quarter on an 11-yard pass to Brandon Coleman. The Scarlet Knights went for two and failed to convert, making the game 24-6.
Despite the failed two-point conversion, Nova was more efficient in the latter half of the game. He ended the game with 157 yards and a touchdown.
Although the team dropped its first Big East game, Rutgers clinched a share of the Big East title for the first time in school history. The Scarlet Knights will share the title with Louisville, who also lost on Saturday in triple overtime to Connecticut, 23-20.
The two teams will play Thursday night to see which team gets the automatic BCS bowl bid.