The first game of the Paul Chryst era got off to an inauspicious start. A few hours before the season opener against Youngstown State, Pitt's new head coach suspended six players for disciplinary reasons, an announcement that was immediately followed by rain and lightning that delayed the game for 30 minutes.
Unfortunately for Chryst, that was only the beginning of a very bad day. Youngstown State, a Division I-AA team that won just six games last season, pulled off the upset, 31-17, before 40,837 rain-soaked fans at Heinz Field who witnessed Pitt's first-ever loss to a I-AA program.
Adding insult to injury, the Penguins made it look kind of easy.
Once upon a time, Youngstown State was a Division I-AA power, but that was a generation ago when the Penguins were winning national championships in the 1990s. They were 0-9 against Division I-A teams since 2001 and last year lost to the likes of South Dakota State and Indiana State.
But the Penguins looked like a well-oiled machine against the Panthers. They marched up and down the field at will against Pitt's defense and came up with a couple of big plays on defense.
The biggest defensive play came with six minutes remaining in the third quarter when they stopped Pitt running back Isaac Bennett on fourth-and-1 at the 21. The Penguins immediately capitalized on the momentum from that stop and drove downfield for the touchdown that put the game out of reach.
Youngstown State drove 78 yards in 15 plays -- its second 15-play touchdown drive of the game -- and made it 28-10 with 12:21 remaining in the fourth quarter.
Considering the way Youngstown State easily converted its fourth touchdown, Chryst's decision not to attempt a field goal was pinned as the game's turning point.
The loss overshadowed the return of running back Ray Graham, who started the game 10 months after a major knee injury ended his 2011 season. But that was about the only positive to come of this debacle. Much-maligned quarterback Tino Sunseri had a tough outing, overthrowing open receivers on several occasions. He drew a chorus of boos after he overthrew a wide open Josh Brinson in the end zone in the fourth quarter.
But there was plenty of blame to go around in this one. The defense did not have an answer for Youngstown State quarterback Kurt Hess or talented running back Jamaine Cook. The Penguins racked up 378 yards of offense and converted 11 of 15 third-down conversions.
Tyrone Ezell, the starting nose tackle, was one of the six suspended players. He was replaced by Khaynin Mosley-Smith. Others suspended included defensive lineman Shayne Hale, receivers Ronald Jones and Chris Davis, running back Rushel Shell and defensive back Anthony Gonzalez.
Youngstown State led 14-10 at halftime and went ahead 21-10 after a trick play on its first drive of the second half. On fourth-and-1 at the Pitt 23, Hess handed off to Cook, who stepped back and threw a touchdown pass to a wide open Will Shaw.
Youngstown State scored on its first two possessions of the first half. The Penguins capitalized on a Graham fumble and scored the first points of the game with 8:25 left in the first quarter. The Penguins marched 79 yards in 10 plays and scored when quarterback Hess threw a 27-yard touchdown pass to Andre Stubbs. Hess faked a running play and threw a quick pass to Stubbs, who beat safety Andrew Taglianetti.
Pitt answered with an impressive drive that was capped by a Bennett 4-yard touchdown run. Sunseri was 5 for 5 on the drive, including a 15-yard hookup with Mike Shanahan that set up Bennett's touchdown.
Pitt's defense couldn't stop Youngstown State from regaining the lead on its next drive, however. The Penguins once again made it look easy, going 92 yards in 15 plays. They converted four third down conversions on the long drive and took a 14-7 lead when Shaw reeled in a Hess pass over the middle for a 14-yard touchdown.
Pitt kicker Kevin Harper made it 14-10 midway through the second quarter, and the Panthers had a chance to take the lead into halftime after forcing Youngstown State to punt for the first time in the game. But Devin Street dropped a pass on third down at the Youngstown State 30, and Pitt was forced to punt with 54 seconds remaining.
It was the second mistake for Street on the drive. He was penalized 15 yards for a personal foul after Shanahan caught a pass near midfield. The penalty forced Pitt back to its own 31.
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @rayfitt1. First Published September 2, 2012 1:30 AM