BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Pitt players talked all week about how this year, this BBVA Compass Bowl, was different.
The Panthers had a head coach sticking around for next season and motivation to end the first year of the Paul Chryst era on a high note, even if it was at the same mid-level bowl game where the past two seasons unceremoniously came to an end.
Instead, the year ended with a lopsided loss at Legion Field for the second year in a row.
With no answer for Mississippi's swarming defense and up-tempo offense, Pitt (6-7) fell to the Rebels, 38-17, to cap off a turbulent 2012 season.
"That was a tough one for us," Chryst said. "Certainly give Ole Miss credit. They beat us in almost every phase. They were clearly the better team [Saturday]. I thought all along our guys prepared well, but [Saturday] they out-executed us."
The Panthers were without senior running back Ray Graham, who suffered a hamstring injury in bowl preparations in Pittsburgh. Without Graham, Pitt managed 266 yards of total offense and 81 yards on the ground.
Senior quarterback Tino Sunseri, playing in his final Pitt game, completed 16 of 32 passes for 185 yards and two touchdowns.
Sunseri's game started off disastrously when he threw an interception to Senquez Golson. It was the third interception Sunseri had thrown this season and first since Sept. 15, covering a stretch of 271 pass attempts without one.
The Rebels (7-6) took over at the Pitt 22 and quickly took advantage. Moving with their hurry-up offense, the Rebels needed five plays to turn the interception into a 7-0 lead with a 14-yard touchdown pass from Bo Wallace to Ja-Mes Logan.
Wallace, who rotated at quarterback for the Rebels with Barry Brunetti, was named the game's MVP and finished with 151 yards passing and three touchdown passes.
"We knew they were going to go up-tempo all game," Pitt safety Jarred Holley said. "Ole Miss did a great job getting ready to play. "
Mississippi extended its lead to 14-0 after a Pitt three-and-out. The Rebels marched 72 yards on 10 plays, capped off by another Wallace touchdown pass. Pitt answered in the second quarter. The Panthers picked off two passes from Wallace to cut Mississippi drives short.
After K'Waun Williams intercepted Wallace at the Mississippi 25, the Panthers broke through on the scoreboard. Aided by a Rebels personal-foul penalty on third down, Pitt made it 14-7 on a 10-yard touchdown pass from Sunseri to wide receiver Devin Street with 7:13 left until halftime.
It didn't take long for the Rebels to retaliate. A 49-yard kickoff return gave them the ball in Pitt territory, and Wallace guided his offense 48 yards in just 1:03 to re-establish the 14-point lead.
"[It's good] any time you can answer a score with a score," Chryst said. "They made some plays and they got it."
Both teams added field goals before the half, and Pitt still seemed to have some life heading into the second half. The Rebels, however, added a touchdown in the third quarter and suffocated the Panthers offense. Pitt ran seven plays for a total of 6 yards, all on the final play of the quarter.
"Whenever you're not completing balls, you're not gaining a rhythm," Sunseri said.
The Rebels just didn't give Sunseri and Pitt's offense a chance to develop momentum, and the Panthers defense failed to force their hand.
"[Their speed] wasn't surprising, but you could definitely tell it was [Southeastern Conference] football," said freshman running back Rushel Shell, who ran for 79 yards on 25 carries in Graham's absence.
First Published January 6, 2013 5:00 AM