Youngstown State jolts Pitt, 31-17, in opener
New coach Paul Chryst exhorts the Panthers in his Pitt debut Saturday night at Heinz Field.
Pitt's Cullen Christian upends Youngstown State's Jamaine Cook in the second quarter Saturday night at Heinz Field.
Pitt fans watch as their team falls further behind Youngstown State in the fourth quarter Saturday night at Heinz Field.
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The Paul Chryst era got off to an inauspicious start before his first game started.
A few hours before the opener Saturday night against Youngstown State at Heinz Field, Pitt's new head coach suspended six players for disciplinary reasons, an announcement that was immediately followed by rain and lightning that delayed the game for 30 minutes.
Tyrone Ezell, the starting nose tackle, was one of the six suspended players. He was replaced by Khaynin Mosley-Smith.
Others suspended included defensive lineman Shayne Hale, receivers Ronald Jones and Chris Davis, highly touted freshman running back Rushel Shell from Hopewell and defensive back Anthony Gonzalez. Chryst would not say if the suspensions would last more than one game. Pitt's next game is Thursday at Cincinnati.
Unfortunately for Chryst, that was only the beginning of a very bad day.
The Division I-AA Penguins pulled off a shocking, 31-17 upset against the Panthers before 40,837 rain-soaked fans who witnessed Pitt's first loss to a lower-division team. Adding insult to injury, the Penguins made it look easy.
Once upon a time, Youngstown State was a Division I-AA power, but that was a generation ago when the Penguins were winning national championships in the 1990s. They were a run-of-the-mill team that went 6-5 last season. They had been 0-9 against Division I-A teams since 2001.
"We have a lot of younger guys playing, and this is a shot in the mouth," senior safety Andrew Taglianetti said. "I think it's a good wake-up call. I think it will really test the character of this team."
Youngstown State looked like a well-oiled machine against the Panthers. They marched up and down the field at will and came up with a couple of big defensive plays, too.
The biggest came with six minutes left in the third quarter when the Penguins stopped running back Isaac Bennett on fourth-and-1 at the Youngstown State 21. The Penguins capitalized on the momentum and drove for the touchdown that sealed the win.
The 78-yard, 15-play drive was the Penguins' second 15-play touchdown march and made it 28-10 with 12:21 left.
Chryst said the decision to go for it was born out of his defense's inability to get stops.
"On third down, we said if we got positive yards there, we wanted to take two downs," Chryst said. "Part of it had to do with the way Youngstown was moving the ball. I didn't feel like there were going to be a lot of possessions in the game. It was a pretty short fourth-and-1. I obviously thought we could get the conversion."
Running back Ray Graham started the game 10 months after major knee surgery ended his 2011 season. He gained 71 yards on 14 carries and fumbled once. Graham said the fourth-down play turned the momentum squarely in the favor of the Penguins.
"After that, they gained momentum," Graham said. "They took it and ran with it."
Graham said his knee felt good and reported no problems afterward -- the only positive to come from this debacle.
Much-maligned quarterback Tino Sunseri had a tough outing, overthrowing open receivers on several occasions. He drew a chorus of boos after he overthrew a wide-open Josh Brinson in the end zone in the fourth quarter. But that came when the game was already out of reach.
Perhaps an even bigger misfire came in the first half when he overthrew a streaking Devin Street when the Panthers trailed, 14-7, in the second quarter. Street was in the clear and would have scored. Instead, they had to settle for a field goal and trailed, 14-10, at halftime.
"We had our opportunities," Chryst said. "There are times we didn't cash in on them. That certainly changes games. We didn't make enough plays. I thought Youngstown State made more plays than we did."
There was plenty of blame to go around. The defense did not have an answer for Youngstown State quarterback Kurt Hess or talented running back Jamaine Cook. The Penguins racked up 381 yards and converted 11 of 16 third downs, including their first six en route to scoring touchdowns on their first two possessions.
"I thought their offensive game plan was pretty good," Taglianetti said. "They got the ball out of their quarterback's hand quickly. It was definitely frustrating. We have some work to do."
Youngstown State led by four at halftime and put the Panthers further on their heels early in the second half, making it 21-10 after a trick play on their first drive of the third quarter. On fourth-and-1 at Pitt's 23, Hess handed off to Cook, who stepped back and threw a touchdown pass to a wide-open Will Shaw.
Youngstown State scored on its first two possessions. The Penguins capitalized on a Graham fumble and scored the first points with 8:25 left in the first quarter. The Penguins marched 79 yards in 10 plays and scored when Hess threw a 27-yard touchdown pass to Andre Stubbs.
Pitt answered with an impressive drive that was capped by Bennett's 4-yard touchdown run. Sunseri was 5 for 5 on the drive, including a 15-yard hookup with Mike Shanahan that set up Bennett's touchdown.
Pitt's defense couldn't stop Youngstown State from regaining the lead on its next drive. The Penguins again made it look easy, going 92 yards in 15 plays. They converted four third downs and took a 14-7 lead when Shaw reeled in a Hess pass over the middle for a 14-yard touchdown.
Pitt kicker Kevin Harper made it 14-10 midway through the second quarter, and the Panthers had a chance to take the lead into halftime after forcing Youngstown State to punt for the first time. But Street dropped a pass on third down at the Penguins' 30, and Pitt was forced to punt with 54 seconds left. It was the second mistake for Street on the drive. He was penalized 15 yards for a personal foul after Shanahan caught a pass near midfield. The penalty forced Pitt back to its 31.
First Published September 2, 2012 12:23 am