Pitt defense sets up bowl trip
Ray Graham dives into the end zone to score Pitt's first touchdown Saturday night in what became a 27-3 win against South Florida in Tampa.
Pittsburgh running back Ray Graham celebrates after scoring on a one-yard touchdown run during the first quarter.
Pittsburgh wide receiver Devin Street dives for an extra yard after getting tripped up by South Florida safety JaQuez Jenkins during the first half.
Pittsburgh defensive lineman Shayne Hale (45) and South Florida quarterback Matt Floyd (11) reach for a fumble by Floyd in the first quarter.
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TAMPA, Fla. -- In a year remarkable for its highs and lows, Pitt made sure the regular season ended on a positive note Saturday night.
The Panthers beat South Florida, 27-3, at Raymond James Stadium, ensuring that Paul Chryst's first season as coach will end with a bowl game.
It wasn't always pretty for Pitt, especially on offense, but the Panthers defense dominated South Florida, which was starting its third quarterback this season.
"We got some takeaways and we just weren't making plays on offense, a lack of execution," Chryst said. "We just kept sticking with it, and it's still a good night."
Ray Graham rushed for 94 yards on 26 carries and scored twice on 1-yard touchdown runs. His yardage total Saturday pushed him over the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the first time. He has 1,042 yards on the season.
He wasn't the only Pitt offensive player to reach a milestone Saturday night, either. Quarterback Tino Sunseri became Pitt's first 3,000-yard passer since Tyler Palko in 2004.
Sunseri completed 19 of 25 passes against the Bulls for 211 yards and a touchdown. He is just the fourth quarterback in Pitt history to break the 3,000-yard barrier.
Sunseri also completed his ninth consecutive game without an interception, a streak of 270 passes.
"Taking care of the football's huge," Chryst said. "That, you appreciate a ton. That's been good.
"We need him to be good."
The Pitt offense didn't come out of the gates on fire, but some South Florida turnovers kept the Panthers in the game until they started moving the ball.
Graham opened the scoring with a 1-yard touchdown run 6:27 into the game. The score capped a seven-play, 21-yard Pitt drive that started after safety Jason Hendricks picked off South Florida quarterback Matt Floyd on the Bulls' first series.
South Florida's next two drives also ended in turnovers.
First, Floyd telegraphed a sideline route from the Pitt 5, and Panthers linebacker Todd Thomas jumped in front of the receiver to grab the interception. On the Bulls' next series, Pitt defensive end Shayne Hale stripped Floyd and recovered the fumble.
"It's a momentum shift," Thomas said. "We're at their place, so turnovers help a lot to get rolling."
Pitt converted that turnover into some points when the Panthers put together a seven-play, 15-yard drive that ended with Kevin Harper's 25-yard field goal.
Harper chipped in another 27-yarder at the end of the second quarter to give the Panthers a 13-0 edge at halftime.
The Panthers dominated South Florida in most statistical categories in the first half while outgaining the Bulls, 137-55, in total offensive yards. Pitt also held a 20:17-9:43 edge in time of possession over the opening 30 minutes.
"Some of those drives, we weren't able to score, but we stuck with it, we made some adjustments, and we were able to put some points up," said receiver Mike Shanahan, who finished with a career-high nine catches for 116 yards.
Despite the fits and starts on offense, Pitt's defensive dominance over South Florida continued in the second half. The Panthers forced a punt on the Bulls' first possession of the third quarter and took advantage of a 19-yard return from Ronald Jones to set up at the South Florida 31.
Once again embracing good field position, Pitt ran the ball with Graham before Sunseri found wide receiver Devin Street for a key third-down conversion from the Bulls 16.
Two plays later, Graham added his second 1-yard touchdown run of the night to make it 20-0.
Pitt wrapped up the scoring on its next drive, capping a nine-play, 50-yard series with a 2-yard play-action pass from Sunseri to freshman tight end JP Holtz.
Pitt finished fifth in the Big East and will head to a bowl game for the fifth consecutive season.
The Panthers will have to wait until tonight to learn their bowl destination. The most likely options are the Beef 'O' Brady's St. Petersburg Bowl, the BBVA Compass Bowl and the Pinstripe Bowl.
The Pinstripe Bowl, played at Yankee Stadium, could be a Backyard Brawl type of game between Pitt and West Virginia, while a trip to the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham, Ala., would be Pitt's third consecutive trip to the game.
"To be able to go to a bowl and be able to extend that [five-year] streak, that's tradition right there," Sunseri said.
"We're a team that you expect to go to a bowl game this year, expect to be in the postseason, expecting to bring a bowl championship back."
First Published December 2, 2012 12:00 am