For the past two weeks, Pitt's players insisted that, despite two losses, the team was making progress. Saturday, they finally let their play do the talking.
Pitt upset No. 13 Virginia Tech, 35-17, at Heinz Field, earning the first win of the Paul Chryst era in emphatic fashion.
The Panthers (1-2) dominated the Hokies on the ground, piling up 254 rushing yards to Virginia Tech's 59. Freshman running back Rushel Shell accounted for 157 of those yards, his first career 100-yard rushing game in just the second game of his young career. He missed the opener against Youngstown State because he and five other Pitt players were suspended.
"You've got to run," said senior Ray Graham, who rushed for 94 yards. "You've got to be physical in this game."
Graham scored three touchdowns, two rushing and one receiving. His rushing touchdown on Pitt's opening drive was his first since returning from offseason ACL surgery.
Meanwhile, Pitt's defense refused to let Virginia Tech establish any sort of running presence. The Hokies gained 59 yards on the ground and averaged 2.3 yards per carry.
"They were not going to run the ball," Pitt linebacker Shane Gordon said. "That's the emphasis. We were going to out-hit them, be more physical and just make them pass."
Pitt forced highly touted Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas into three costly interceptions, two by safety Jason Hendricks.
The defensive line, which struggled at containing quarterbacks in the first two games, was in Thomas' face all afternoon.
"He's a good quarterback, but we had him today," Hendricks said.
Unlike last week, when Pitt trailed, 14-0, against Cincinnati before five minutes had elapsed, the Panthers jumped to an early lead. On their first drive, they fed the defense a steady dose of Graham, and mixed in a couple of long passes from quarterback Tino Sunseri.
On first-and-10 from the Virginia Tech 12, Graham took a handoff right, stutter-stepped around a Hokies defender and sprinted to the corner of the end zone for his first touchdown since Oct. 8 of last season.
"It felt real good to get back to the old ways," Graham said. "It just felt good to put up points, period."
Pitt led, 14-0, after the first quarter and 21-3 at halftime.
"It was totally different from the first two games," wide receiver Devin Street said.
The Panthers finished five for seven in their red-zone opportunities, a stark reversal from their previous struggles to score.
"We talked in weeks past about being able to drive down the field but not being able to convert in the red zone," Sunseri said. "Today, we were able to convert down in the red zone."
Sunseri completed 19 of 28 passes for 283 yards and one touchdown. On the second play of the fourth quarter, he threw his only interception and limped off the field. Backup Trey Anderson warmed up, but Chryst said there was never a doubt that Sunseri would return.
Sunseri came back to lead a touchdown drive that ate up 7:44 and sealed the win.
"He said he was hurt, but he was staying in there," Street said. "He's a fighter."
Sunseri said he was "fine" and would be ready to go against Gardner-Webb next week.
Street finished with four catches for 73 yards and a touchdown. Mike Shanahan was Pitt's leading receiver with five receptions for 111 yards and a score.
Both Virginia Tech touchdowns came in the third quarter. Just 3:03 into the second half, Kyshoen Jarrett returned a punt 94 yards for a touchdown to make it 21-10 and give the Hokies a pulse.
When they tried to build on that momentum on the next drive, though, Pitt's defense made key stops on third-and-1 and fourth-and-1.
"It was huge," Gordon said. "They probably thought they were just going to get it, but no. Third-and-short, fourth-and-short, we stuffed them."
The Panthers' next drive produced another touchdown, and Pitt held the ball for 12:09 of the final quarter to finish off the win.
While it might be easy to question how a team that looked so overmatched in its first two games, one against a Division I-AA opponent, could rebound so strongly, Chryst offered a simple answer.
"We didn't drink some magic Kool-Aid last night or today," he said.
"The guys played and came together. Everything you go through builds you, and the guys responded today."
First Published September 16, 2012 4:00 AM