By NATALIE BIGLEY
After a slow start against Gardner-Webb, some Pitt fans probably experienced a gutwrenching feeling of déjà vu. Pitt’s loss to fellow FCS school Youngstown State gave Panthers supporters reason to be sensitive.
That slow start didn’t last, however, and Pitt vindicated itself in a big way with a 55-10 victory Saturday afternoon at Heinz Field.
“They’ve got some really good players,” said Pitt head coach Paul Chryst. “They’re a young team. They’re well coached and they presented some challenges to us, but I like the result of the game.”
Early in the game, the Runnin’ Bulldogs (0-4) looked like they would keep up with the Panthers (2-2).
“I give them credit,” Chryst said. “I thought early they were winning the line of scrimmage.”
Gardner-Webb even had the game’s first scoring opportunity, but Trever Austin missed a 40-yard field goal attempt.
“In the beginning, we started off well,” Gardner-Webb’s sophomore quarterback Lucas Beatty said. “Then, we had a couple of mistakes that set us back later in that game.”
One of those mistakes came shortly after the missed field goal when Pitt recovered a Gardner-Webb fumble and converted the turnover into a touchdown – a 1-yard run by Rushel Shell – to give the Panthers a 17-3 lead.
Gardner-Webb still showed some fight after Pitt running back Ray Graham fumbled in the second quarter. Dylan Taylor recovered it for Gardner-Webb, running it 65 yards for a touchdown, closing the gap to 24-10.
It looked like the Runnin’ Bulldogs might have a chance until Pitt started breaking tackles and breaking records.
A big second-half helped Pitt accrue a whopping 626 total offensive yards, its most offensive yards since 1997.
And Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri was partly responsible for that. Sunseri enjoyed a second consecutive big game, and he continues to climb the Panthers’ career passing and offensive lists. Sunseri finished 18 of 24 for 344 yards and three touchdowns. He now has 6,616 career offensive yards, which moves him ahead of Heisman Trophy winner Tony Dorsett (6,526) for fifth place on Pitt’s all-time list.
One of his wide receivers, Cameron Saddler, said the offense is coming together under Sunseri’s leadership.
“He’s confident in the huddle,” Saddler said. “He’s making sure guys are doing the right thing. That’s what we need out of our quarterback.”
Sunseri spread the wealth against Gardner-Webb. Saddler, Devin Street and Mike Shanahan finished with five receptions each and combined for 331 receiving yards.
Shanahan set a new career high with five catches, 144 yards and two touchdowns. One of these was for 77 yards, making the game 41-10. This surpasses his career-high of 111, which came last week against Virginia Tech.
“There’s a long season left, but it feels great finally seeing some of the hard work that we do in the off-season finally paying off,” Shanahan said.
Graham also made a big play for the first score of the game.
Graham ran the ball 78 yards for a Pitt touchdown, the second longest run of his career.
Although the Panthers won big, Chryst said there are still areas they can improve upon. One of those areas is penalties.
Pitt was penalized nine times – the same number as Gardner-Webb.
“We want to be a team that isn’t penalized and certainly want to play within the rules,“ Chryst said.
Pitt’s defense had a big day too, coming up with big stops on third down and holding Gardner-Webb to 127 yards. It also allowed only four third down conversions for the Runnin’ Bulldogs offense.
“Every week is a new week,” Chryst said. “There is no doubt that the players are gaining some confidence. Maybe it’s their confidence that is coming out. I think it’s a process for this team and it’s a good thing.”
Pitt’s next game is against Syracuse at the Carrier Dome on Oct.5 at 7 p.m.
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