Pitt's Bryan Murphy, top, and T.J. Clemmings trip up Buffalo's Alex Zordich in the first half Saturday in the Panthers' non-conference win in Amherst, N.Y.
By Sam Werner Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- In a half-empty stadium with gusting winds and on-and-off rain showers, it may not have elicited many "style points." At this point in the season, though, Pitt's perfectly OK with that.
The Panthers got past Buffalo, 20-6, Saturday at UB Stadium, overcoming the elements and a pesky Mid-American Conference opponent to end their two-game losing streak.
"It felt good," running back Ray Graham said. "We're not where we need to be at, but a win is a win no matter how you take it. Coach always preaches when we go in the game that we just need to get one more point than the other team."
When the Panthers (3-4) took the field for pregame warm-ups, the wind and rain indicated to Graham and fellow running back Rushel Shell that they would have to do the bulk of the work offensively against the Bulls.
Graham finished with 74 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries, and Shell added 35 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries.
"Rain, sleet, hail, snow, any weather, you've got to come ready to play every game," Graham said.
In the wind and the rain, the Panthers came out in the first half with a conservative offensive philosophy. They threw the ball just six times in the opening 30 minutes, and ran it 22 times.
Pitt coach Paul Chryst said the disparity was just as much a product of game flow as the weather. Specifically, he cited the fact that Pitt went 2 for 7 on third downs in the first half.
"You're not getting enough snaps, enough kicks at the can," Chryst said. "I think that was as big a factor as the weather, in terms of not getting those attempts."
The Panthers got on the board in the first quarter with two field goals from Kevin Harper, from 45 and 22 yards. Harper was just 6 of 11 on field goals coming into the game.
"We needed that and he delivered," Chryst said.
"Now we've got to build on that. He's got to take his momentum."
The Bulls (1-6) started to move the ball on their next drive, but an interception by Pitt safety Jason Hendricks cut the series short.
Starting at the Bulls 27, Pitt handed the ball to Shell, who carried six times for 13 yards and capped it off with a 4-yard touchdown run.
The Bulls tacked on two field goals on their final two drives of the half to make it 13-6 heading into the break.
Pitt opened it up in the second half, finally throwing the ball downfield. On its second series of the third quarter, quarterback Tino Sunseri completed a third-and-14 on a 25-yard crossing pattern to receiver Mike Shanahan. The drive ended with a 7-yard Ray Graham touchdown run that put Pitt up, 20-6.
"It was huge," Sunseri said of that conversion. "I think any time you're able to get up two scores on somebody, you're really building that margin for error a little bit."
For the rest of the fourth quarter, Pitt's defense locked down and kept the Bulls out of the end zone.
The defense had to deal with a revamped linebacking corps, with Todd Thomas starting on the weak side and Dan Mason starting in the middle.
Mason, making his first start since Sept. 11, 2010, tied a career-high with 11 tackles. He had missed two years after a serious leg injury in 2010.
"I felt great. Two years was a long time," Mason said. "This is what I've been working for."
Buffalo quarterback Alex Zordich finished 23-of-41 passing for 165 yards, and added 79 yards on the ground on 19 rushing attempts.
"I do think he is a heck of a football player," Chryst said. "If you weren't playing against him, he'd be fun to watch."
Pitt returns to Big East Conference action at noon Saturday with a home game against Temple. The win Saturday was far from pretty, but Chryst was optimistic that it could serve as a springboard for the second half of the season.
"By no means was it a perfect game and seldom are they," Chryst said. "Maybe we can look back and say we had to win and every group had to be a part of it. Hopefully we can grow from that."