Pitt keeps bowl hopes alive, downs Rutgers, 27-6
Pitt's surprisingly easy 27-6 victory against No. 21 Rutgers on Saturday put into painfully sharp focus the best and worst of the Panthers' football program.
The good: The Panthers proved — as they did three weeks ago against No. 1 Notre Dame — they can compete with good teams. Rutgers entered Heinz Field atop the Big East with a 9-1 record and could not solve Pitt's defense, which played its best game of the season in front of a crowd of 38,786.
The bad: Pitt (5-6, 2-4) can wallow among the dregs of college football, too, as it proved in losses to Youngstown State of the FCS, Connecticut, Cincinnati and Syracuse.
“Sometimes guys get going, and sometimes guys don't,” senior receiver Cam Saddler said.
The answer, Saddler said, stands tall on the Pitt sideline.
“That is the thing coach (Paul) Chryst is going to change,” he said. “Every time you step on the field, you are competing.”
That doesn't always happen, so Chryst isn't sure what goes through his players' minds all the time, but he knows this much:
“This group likes to play,” he said. “I thought guys were dialed in. They enjoyed playing today, and they enjoyed playing together. If you are a competitor, you like playing good teams. That's why you come to these places. You want to play in big games against good teams.”
The dominant victory against a Rutgers team that was 7-0 in late October broke Pitt's third two-game losing streak of the season and put the Panthers in position to become bowl eligible for the fifth consecutive season. Pitt can reach six victories by defeating South Florida (3-8, 1-5) on Saturday in Tampa, Fla.
“I think our guys want to play some more,” Chryst said. “We have to go do it, though.”
Pitt's players and coaches drew the blueprint for success against Rutgers. they survived a slow start to score three touchdowns in the second quarter, added two Kevin Harper field goals in the second half and played strong defense throughout the frigid afternoon.
“I think this is the best win (of the season) for us,” quarterback Tino Sunseri said, “for us to hit adversity first and just keep playing.”
Sunseri was among several stars on offense, completing 21 of 39 passes for 227 yards and two touchdowns to stretch his nation-leading active streak of consecutive throws without an interception to 245 (8 1⁄4 games).
Running back Ray Graham ran for 113 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries, the third time in the past four games he reached triple digits. He also moved into third place on Pitt's all-time rushing list (3,177, surpassing Craig Heyward).
Probably most impressive was defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who had seven unassisted tackles and a sack.
“He set the standard that he should play well,” Chryst said. “It's pretty neat to be around a guy (that) when the bar is set high, he can achieve that level.”
The Panthers found a level of consistency that has been missing in many games, appearing to draw inspiration from a respected group of seniors playing their last home game.
Emotions were high before the game, when Saddler promised himself he wouldn't cry.
“Then we got out there in pregame, and I was trying to fight it, and I saw my Mom, and I said, ‘I'm done,' ” he said. “I watered it up.”
Saddler, who is seldom quiet before, during and after games, turned the switch to “off” and maintained a stricter focus, just like his teammates.
“We just all kind of stayed calm,” he said. “We went about it the right way.”
Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7997.