Pitt 35, Buffalo 16: Defensive lineman Alecxih's interception changes course of Todd Graham's debut


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Coach Todd Graham came to Pitt with a reputation for running high-powered offenses, and he spoke often about the speed, athleticism and astronomical numbers his teams at Tulsa used to put up on a weekly basis.

So, of course, on opening night, in the first game of the Graham era at Pitt, the biggest play for the Panthers -- and the one that got them rolling -- was made by defensive end Chas Alecxih, whose running style can most politely be described as lumbering.

But that is exactly how it unfolded Saturday night when the Panthers beat the Buffalo Bulls, 35-16, before a crowd of 48,359 at Heinz Field.

The Panthers offense was sluggish in the first half, scoring one touchdown through the first 30 minutes. In fact, Pitt was clinging tightly to a 7-3 lead early in the third quarter, when the Bulls drove to the Panthers' 31.

It was third-and-11 from there when Alecxih stepped in front of Buffalo quarterback Chazz Anderson's screen pass, intercepted it and returned it 47 yards to the Bulls' 20.


PG SLIDESHOW


Two plays later, tailback Ray Graham scored on a 3-yard run to give the Panthers a 14-3 lead. From that point, Pitt's offense rolled over the Bulls, so much so that the Panthers scored on every possession in the second half.

Todd Graham said that while the offense did some great things in the second half, Alecxih made the key play because his interception both settled the team down and pumped them up.

Alecxih said the defensive players had talked right before the interception about making a play to help out the offense. It just so happened he was the one in the right place at the right time.

And it was no accident that Alecxih was in position to make the play. That's because he had been beaten earlier on the same play and made the right adjustment.

"First game of the season, you are never sure how it is going to go," Alecxih said. "And we said, we have to come up with a big turnover. They ran [the same screen] in the first quarter, and I didn't read it and my position coach nearly had a heart attack and punched me in the face and said don't do that again.

"So, when I saw it again, I was in position to make the play, and I was able to catch it and go."

Although Alecxih made the biggest play, Ray Graham was the Panthers' star, running 29 times for 201 yards and three touchdowns. He also sealed the game with a late, 75-yard run that set up the Panthers with a first-and-goal at the Buffalo 1.

Graham said the offense that ran 43 plays in the first half but produced only seven points is a work in progress.

In the second half, however, that same offense showed how explosive it can be with the 28-point outburst in 23 plays.

"It took us a couple of plays to get going, but, once we got things going, we got rolling," Ray Graham said.

"Once we get our offense going, we are going to be good, we're going to be a force to be reckoned with. Once we got comfortable, we got things going. We took advantage of our opportunities in the second half -- I think if we can get started earlier, we can put up a lot of points.

"A couple of times early, I got tackled in the backfield, but I didn't get discouraged because I knew I could get it rolling and I feel like I did."

The Panthers actually looked like they might get rolling to a big night offensively when, on their second possession, they needed eight plays to drive 54 yards and take a 7-0 lead on a 6-yard touchdown run by Zach Brown, the transfer from Wisconsin.

But the Panthers led only 7-3 at the half. Things turned around some when Alecxih made the play to stop the Bulls' first second-half drive as well as ignite Pitt's offense.

And yet, the Bulls responded with an impressive 13-play, 76-yard drive and pulled to within 14-10 on a 2-yard run by Anderson.

Their recovery was brief, though, as the Panthers (1-0) scored quickly on their next two drives -- one took 1:53, the other 1:36 -- to build a 28-16 lead with 10 minutes left.

Buffalo (0-1) had a couple of late chances to get back in the game.

The Bulls had the ball deep in Panthers territory twice in the final six minutes, but both drives ended with Anderson throwing incomplete passes on fourth down.

Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri got off to a slow start, but, like Graham and the rest of the offense, settled down in the second half and finished by completing 16 of 28 passes for 179 yards and a touchdown.

Todd Graham said that in many ways this was a perfect way to start the new era because the Panthers got a victory -- the most important thing -- but made enough mistakes and had enough rough areas that coaches will be able to use them as teaching moments.



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