With its back completely up against the wall Saturday, Pitt fought back and delivered one of its most complete performances this season.
The Panthers beat No. 21 Rutgers, 27-6, in a Big East Conference game at Heinz Field, keeping their dream of a postseason bowl berth alive for at least one more week.
Pitt (5-6, 2-4) used a 21-0 second quarter to take a decisive lead and put the game away in the second half.
Ray Graham rushed for 113 yards on 23 carries, and Pitt racked up 365 yards of total offense against a defense ranked No. 14 in Division I-A before the game.
"I think we started tiring them down, breaking them down," Graham said. "We just started working."
Both teams started sluggishly, with eight punts and no points in the first quarter, but Pitt jump-started its offense on its first drive of the second quarter en route to a three-touchdown halftime lead.
"You make a couple of plays, and that kind of gets the ball rolling," Pitt coach Paul Chryst said. "When you make plays, it can become contagious."
After an eight-play, 80-yard drive, Pitt's first score came on a 16-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Tino Sunseri to receiver Mike Shanahan, who was wide open in the back left corner of the end zone.
"We've been lining up in the same formation," Shanahan said. "Usually, I run a slant out of it, but I just gave a little slant-and-go, and the corner bit hard."
The Panthers' next two drives stalled. First, they were forced to punt from the Rutgers 35 on fourth-and-1. On their next possession, a fumbled snap at the Scarlet Knights 2ended a golden scoring chance.
Pitt, however, reached the end zone on the Panthers' final two drives of the half, both times taking advantage of good field position. A three-play, 28-yard drive was capped by a 1-yard leap by Graham over the pile. The other possession ended with a 13-yard touchdown pass from Sunseri to Ed Tinker seven seconds before halftime.
Sunseri finished with 21 completions in 39 attempts for 227 yards and two touchdowns. With his eighth consecutive interception-free game, he has thrown 245 consecutive passes without a pick, the longest active streak in Division I-A.
While Pitt's offense was moving in fits and starts, Rutgers failed to sustain any momentum. The Scarlet Knights gained three first downs in the first half and never advanced past the Pitt 45. Pitt outgained Rutgers in the first half, 245-50.
The same explosiveness was missing in the second half, but the defense stifled any hope of a Scarlet Knights comeback. Aaron Donald was particularly disruptive, finishing with seven tackles, including three for a losses.
"I think Aaron played a very good game," Rutgers coach Kyle Flood said. "If you watch that game on tape, you're going to see him in the backfield. Very athletic, high motor, a very talented defensive lineman, and he played like it today."
Donald said the biggest key for Pitt was shutting down Rutgers' rushing attack. The Scarlet Knights rushed for just 50 yards, and 22 came on their final drive when the game was well in hand.
"The holes were there; it's just that they were closing pretty fast," Rutgers running back Jawan Jamison said. "They were causing a fuss up front."
Late in the third quarter, Rutgers finally got a touchdown on an 11-yard pass from quarterback Gary Nova to receiver Brandon Coleman, but that was the Scarlet Knights' only score.
The win gave Pitt's seniors a win on senior day and ended the home phase of a tumultuous season on a positive note.
"This is great, right here," Graham said. "With the season how it's turning out, we were happy to get this win."
Now, the seniors have one more goal: Win next week at South Florida and earn the Panthers' fifth consecutive bowl bid.
"It's huge," center Ryan Turnley said. "Everyone here wants to play one more game together. Starting tomorrow morning, that's going to be our only focus."
Sam Werner: firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @SWernerPG. Seth Rorabaugh contributed to this report. First Published November 25, 2012 5:45 AM