CINCINNATI -- On Cincinnati's first play from scrimmage Thursday night, Bearcats running back George Winn took a handoff from quarterback Munchie Legaux and ran up the middle, nearly untouched, 58 yards for a touchdown.
Unfortunately for Pitt, it only got worse from there.
The Panthers lost to Cincinnati, 34-10, in their Big East opener, seemingly confirming doubts that were raised in the loss to Division I-AA Youngstown State last week.
The same problems that plagued Pitt in the opener appeared again. Cincinnati rushed for 257 yards, and Pitt managed three points on three trips to the red zone.
Legaux completed 14 of 28 passes for 205 yards and two touchdowns and added 117 yards rushing.
"Tonight, we played two opponents. We fought against ourselves and we had to play a good Cincinnati team," Pitt head coach Paul Chryst said.
Cincinnati wasted no time jumping on the Panthers for an early lead as Winn's touchdown gave the Bearcats a 7-0 lead 1:24 into the game.
On Pitt's ensuing possession, Cincinnati defensive lineman Walter Stewart came around right end untouched, sacked quarterback Tino Sunseri and forced a fumble. Camaron Beard recovered to give the Bearcats the ball on the Pitt 36. Four plays later, Legaux found Ralph David Abernathy on a swing pass, and Abernathy sprinted past the defense for a 15-yard touchdown and a 14-0 Bearcats lead.
"We understood that we needed to go out there, try and answer, and their defense just didn't allow that," Sunseri said.
From there, the defense slowed down Cincinnati's offense. The Bearcats managed three more points the rest of the half thanks to Tony Miliano's 39-yard field goal with 2:51 to go in the second quarter.
Pitt's offense couldn't get out of its own way.
Twice in the first half, the Panthers worked the ball inside the Cincinnati 10, and twice they came away with no points to show for it.
Early in the second quarter, Pitt took advantage of a 31-yard shovel pass from Sunseri to running back Ray Graham that got the ball down to the Cincinnati 6. It looked like Sunseri would be sacked, but replay confirmed that he flipped the ball to Graham a split-second before his knee touched the ground.
A holding penalty pushed the Panthers back, though, and, on third down, Sunseri threw an interception to Cincinnati linebacker Greg Blair while looking for Drew Carswell in the end zone.
Sunseri completed 24 of 37 passes for 278 yards with the one interception and one touchdown. He was sacked six times after not being sacked by Youngstown State. Most times he dropped back to pass, he faced an onslaught of black jerseys.
At the end of the first half, Pitt had another chance to cut the deficit and at least get on the scoreboard. The Panthers had three plays from inside the Cincinnati 5, but three Sunseri passes fell incomplete. On the final play of the half, with five seconds remaining on the clock, Sunseri couldn't find a receiver, double-clutched and threw the ball away.
Unfortunately, the clock already had expired, and the Panthers went to the locker room empty-handed and facing a 17-0 deficit.
"You've got to know, with five seconds left, not to put so much air under the ball when you're trying to throw the ball away," Sunseri said. "To conserve a second where you can go kick the field goal. We were trying to score there, and Cincinnati didn't allow us to do that. Credit to their defense."
The second half wasn't much better.
Pitt worked the ball inside the red zone on its first series, but settled for a field goal. On the first play of the Bearcats' next possession, Legaux ran an option play for 77 yards to set up a 9-yard touchdown run by Winn that made the lead 24-3.
"[Legaux] is that type of athlete that gives you some problems," Chryst said.
Legaux and Abernathy hooked up again in the fourth quarter for a 12-yard touchdown pass. The speedy Abernathy finished with 20 yards rushing and 71 receiving, and always looked a step head of the Panthers defense.
Miliano tacked on a 37-yard field goal with 3:55 to play to finish the blowout.
Sunseri found Carswell in the end zone for a 9-yard touchdown pass with 34 seconds remaining, but by that point the stadium was virtually empty and the game long decided.
"It's a heck of a chance to grow," Chryst said of his team's slow start.
"It's not easy as you're going through. I think we've got some guys that truly care. Shoot, we've got 10 more games on our schedule.
"Obviously, we've had two disappointing losses, and, if it didn't hurt the guys, you'd be disappointed."
If there was a bright spot for Pitt, it was that Graham appeared to make continued improvement in his recovery from a torn ACL that cost him the latter part of last season.
Graham, who rushed for 71 yards on 14 carries last week, gained 103 yards on 19 carries Thursday night. He showed some of his old burst on a 50-yard run midway through the second quarter.
"It's just a confidence thing. I think the more you play on it, and the more you play against different opponents, the more confident you get," Graham said.
"I think as the weeks go on, I'm going to feel better and better."
Pitt freshman running back Rushel Shell made his collegiate debut against the Bearcats. The former Hopewell High School star, who last year set the Pennsylvania state high school career rushing record, ran for 31 yards on eight carries.
"I thought that he did some good things," Chryst said. "He got crossed up on a protection, but I thought he did some good things."
Shell was one of six players suspended just hours before kickoff against Youngstown State last week for "disciplinary reasons."
All six had their suspensions lifted Wednesday. Shell, wide receiver Ronald Jones and defensive ends Tyrone Ezell and Shayne Hale made the trip to Cincinnati.
Wide receiver Chris Davis and safety Anthony Gonzalez had their suspensions lifted, but they were not on the team's travel roster.
Sam Werner: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @SWernerPG. First Published September 7, 2012 5:00 AM