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Pitt becomes bowl eligible, downs USF, 27-3

| Saturday, Dec. 1, 2012, 8:32 p.m.
Pittsburgh running back Ray Graham (1) goes over the goal line for a touchdown during the first quarter of an NCAA college football game against South Florida Saturday, Dec. 1, 2012, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

TAMPA, Fla. - Pitt wrote a new chapter into its history books and assured there will an epilogue to this season by defeating South Florida, 27-3, Saturday night at Raymond James Stadium. The victory made Pitt bowl eligible for the fifth consecutive season.

The outcome was largely the result of a defense that recovered a fumble and intercepted third-string quarterback Matt Floyd three times. Pitt (6-6, 3-4 Big East) nearly recorded its first shutout since 2005, but Maikon Bonani kicked a 25-yard field goal with 9:41 left in the fourth quarter.

The offense, which was inconsistent and mistake-prone with 13 penalties, rose to life long enough to push quarterback Tino Sunseri over 3,000 yards and running back Ray Graham past 1,000. That marked the first time in Pitt history two players reached those milestones in the same season.

Sunseri finished with 3,103 yards and became the first Pitt quarterback since Tyler Palko in 2004 to reach that level. Graham has 1,042 yards.

Receiver Mike Shanahan had a career-high nine receptions for 116 yards. Graham carried 26 times for 94 yards and two touchdowns, and Sunseri completed 19 of 25 for 211 yards and a 2-yard touchdown pass to tight end J.P. Holtz. Sunseri also stretched his streak without an interception to 270 attempts.

Coach Paul Chryst was pleased with the victory, but he said the team still can improve.

"We kind of hurt ourselves, but guys are working," Chryst said. "Certainly went through a lot of things this season but still found a way to earn a right to play another game.

"We weren't making plays on offense, and (we had) a lack of execution but kind of kept sticking with it. It still was a good night."

Chryst especially was happy to see defensive tackle Aaron Donald dominate with five tackles, four for a loss.

"He has earned the right to play one more game, so he better be good at it," Chryst said. "We are going to need him."

Pitt is expected to accept an invitation Sunday to either the Beef ‘O'Brady's, Pinstripe, Compass or Liberty bowls. This is the second consecutive year the Panthers needed to win their final regular-season game to secure one of 70 bowl spots. Last year Pitt defeated Syracuse, 33-20, at Heinz Field to finish the regular season at 6-6.

Pitt, which finished fifth in the Big East, could return for the third consecutive season to the Compass Bowl, which has the right to pick fifth from eligible teams.

"It will feel good to run out of that tunnel one more time before I take my talents to the next level," Graham said.

"Any bowl, except Birmingham (Compass Bowl)," he added with a laugh. "Three times in a row. I think they may not even allow us in there. Wherever we go, we are going to make the best of that bowl game and have fun. Another win will help solidify the season."

Negotiations among conference, school, TV network and bowl officials could change the order of selection and result in Pitt going to the Beef ‘O' Brady's or Pinstripe bowls. Pitt is considered a long shot for the Liberty.

Pinstripe Bowl executive director Mark Holtzman said last week that reviving the Backyard Brawl between Pitt and West Virginia would be a "compelling" matchup for his game Dec. 29 in Yankee Stadium. West Virginia is also in line to go to the Holiday Bowl.

The defense gave Pitt an early edge Saturday before a crowd of 35,141, intercepting two passes and recovering a fumble before halftime.

Graham recorded his first of two 1-yard scoring bursts, and Kevin Harper kicked two field goals from 25 and 27 yards. But Pitt's three scoring drives averaged only 22.6 yards.

Pitt's defense showed up on South Florida's first possession. Junior safety Jason Hendricks intercepted a Matt Floyd pass at the USF 31 and returned it 10 yards, setting up Graham's first touchdown. South Florida kept the drive alive when cornerback Kayvon Webster was called for a hands-to-the-face penalty on third down that would have forced a field goal attempt.

In the second quarter, senior defensive end Shayne Hale stripped Floyd of the ball and recovered at the South Florida 24.

That led to another short scoring march for Pitt. Harper kicked a 25-yard field goal to increase the lead to 10-0. Pitt might have scored a touchdown, but receiver Ronald Jones dropped a third-down pass. Jones was in the lineup because Chryst suspended senior Cam Saddler for disciplinary reasons.

Harper added a second field goal late in the second quarter. It was sixth in seventh tries since a critical miss in the second overtime against Notre Dame on Nov. 3.

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

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