On Pitt's first drive of the fourth quarter Saturday, the Panthers took the field leading, 28-17, seemingly needing one more score to seal the deal for an upset win.
Freshman running back Rushel Shell lined up in the backfield behind quarterback Tino Sunseri. He took the first two carries of the drive and delivered a clear message: Pitt was going to finish off this game.
Shell delivered physical runs of 13 and 29 yards to kick-start a drive that ultimately ate up 7:44 and ended with a game-sealing touchdown pass from Sunseri to Mike Shanahan.
Playing his first game for Pitt at Heinz Field, Shell looked every bit the player who was touted as one of the best high school running backs in the country. He ran for 157 physical yards, unafraid to lower his shoulders and initiate contact against more experienced Hokies defenders.
"He's running with confidence and he feels good about himself," senior running back Ray Graham said of Shell. "He's just getting better from here."
Shell was making his Heinz Field debut for Pitt Saturday because he was one of six players suspended for "disciplinary reasons" for Pitt's season opener against Youngstown State two weeks ago.
"I'm young, I make mistakes," he said last week. "You learn from them everyday. You just learn not to make those mistakes again and not hurt your team."
That meant that Saturday was Shell's first football game in Western Pennsylvania since he broke the PIAA career rushing record in Hopewell's 24-21 loss to Franklin Regional a year ago in the WPIAL playoffs. He said the excitement and energy of playing in front of his hometown fans was more than enough to keep him going.
"I couldn't sit down," he said. "I wanted to go back in and stay in."
Now, Pitt coach Paul Chryst faces the enviable challenge of having to figure out exactly how to divvy up carries among Pitt's running backs. Against Virginia Tech, Shell got 23 carries and Graham got 24. The previous week in Cincinnati, Graham had 19 and Shell only got eight.
Graham is still working back from offseason ACL surgery, but said his knee feels better and better every week. Against the Hokies, he earned 94 yards on the ground and two rushing touchdowns. He also added a touchdown reception.
"It's good to have those 1-2 punches," Graham said. "I think Rushel Shell is a good running back and he's going to continue to get better from here."
Sophomore Isaac Bennett is also in the mix, though he seems to have carved out a niche as Pitt's go-to back for passing situations. All four of his touches Saturday (two rushes, two receptions) came in long-yardage or passing situations.
• Game: Gardner-Webb vs. Pitt.
• When: 3:30 p.m.
• TV: ESPN3.pittsports
Sam Werner: firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SWernerPG First Published September 17, 2012 4:00 AM