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Pitt overwhelms Gardner-Webb

| Saturday, Sept. 22, 2012, 5:24 p.m.
Pitt's Ray Graham outraces the Gardner-Webb defense on a 78-yard TD run Saturday, Sept. 22, at Heinz Field. Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Pitt's Shane Gordon's tackle breaks up a pass intended for Gardner-Webb's Seth Cranfill at Heinz Field on Saturday September 22, 2012. (Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review)
Pitt's Mike Shanahan crosses the goal line as Gardner-Webb's Donald Buie III gives up at Heinz Field on Saturday September 22, 2012. Pitt wins the game, 55-10. (Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review)

Several hours before kickoff Saturday, Pitt's football players gathered at their hotel for a team meeting.

Initially, there was the usual small talk and moderate amounts of chaos associated with a group of young men eager to play a game. Suddenly, quarterback Tino Sunseri decided it was time to do business.

“Let's lock in,” he snapped.

On cue, the room came to order, according to senior wide receiver Cam Saddler. Pitt made its final plans, left the room, journeyed to Heinz Field and put together an offensive performance of historic proportions in a 55-10 victory over Gardner-Webb.

“Everybody said, ‘Oh, Tino,' ” Saddler said of how the players responded to the senior quarterback. “That's what we need from him, to be our leader. Tino has been our Pops for the past four years. Tino is so confident. Tino might have more confidence than me, and that's hard to do.”

The result on this day was a victory that helped rewrite the Pitt record book.

Admittedly, it occurred against a Gardner-Webb team that is 0-4 in the FCS and seriously overmatched by Pitt in ability and experience — but no players seemed to care about that. The Pitt team that had started the season in so much turmoil needed another victory — any victory — to embrace.

Sunseri, a fifth-year senior, completed 18 of 24 attempts for 344 yards and three touchdowns, improving his production from the previous week for the second consecutive game. In the process, he moved into fifth place on Pitt's all-time list in total yards (6,616), passing Heisman Trophy-winning running back Tony Dorsett, who played four seasons.

Pitt's 626 yards of total offense were the third most in school history.

Sunseri completed five passes each to wide receivers Mike Shanahan, who had the longest touchdown reception of his career (77 yards); Devin Street, who also scored; and Saddler, who almost scored, getting stopped at the 1 after a 20-yard gain in the second quarter.

“I wish he would have gotten in the end zone,” Shanahan said, “but we told him he has to get in the weight room a little more.”

The day, however, belonged to Sunseri, who also moved to within 21 yards of fifth place on Pitt's all-time passing list with 6,446 yards. When told by reporters of the historical significance of his efforts, Sunseri, who has shouldered a fair share of criticism throughout his career, claimed he doesn't follow what is said about him — good or bad — in the media.

“If I did, I don't know if I'd be able to talk to you guys,” he said, smiling.

Pitt's defense only allowed 127 total yards and no offensive touchdowns.

The victory improved Pitt's record to 2-2 and represented the first time since the start of the 2011 season that the Panthers have won two games in a row. Leave it to low-key coach Paul Chryst to put the day in proper perspective.

“I've got a lot of respect for this group of guys and how we go about it,” he said. “I like coming to work and appreciate coming to work with this group.

“I like where we are going, but I know we have to keep getting a lot better.”

Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at jdipaola@tribweb.com or 412-320-7997.

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