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Starkey: Memorable day for Pitt seniors

| Saturday, Nov. 24, 2012, 10:34 p.m.
Pitt running back Ray Graham goes over the top against Rutgers for a touchdown in the second quarter Saturday, Nov. 24, 2012, at Heinz Field. Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review

This was not an upset.

Pitt was favored over No. 21 Rutgers for a reason: The Scarlet Knights had played a joke of a schedule and could only be considered a good team within the sickly confines of the dying Big East.

Oddsmakers installing Pitt as a slight favorite attracted more than 90 percent of the betting interest in Rutgers' favor.

I believe that's called a sucker bet.

Those who'd seen Rutgers play knew of its dreadful offense (ranked 96th out of 120 major college programs) and probably had a hunch its defense was wildly overrated. After all, Rutgers had faced only one offense ranked among the top 45 in scoring — and lost, 35-23, to Kent State.

None of which can erase the fact that Pitt put it all together in a 27-6 victory and did so on the perfect day: Senior Day.

This will be a game for Pitt's seniors to remember — and not just because Rutgers rolled up 397 yards punting.

“Any time I come back here to Heinz Field, I'll definitely remember this day,” said senior safety Andrew Taglianetti. “From the get-go, walking onto the field, I just knew we had it. I feel like we dominated today.”

Players who've been with this program for four, five or six years (hello, Chris Jacobson) have seen a few things, you know: six head coaches (including interims); an all-time bitter loss to Cincinnati; several narrowly missed opportunities; and lots of half-empty stadiums (including the one Saturday at Heinz Field).

They also won their share of Big East games, going 16-11 since 2009. But they can look back on Saturday as the rare day when nearly everything went right.

After a scoreless first quarter, Pitt erupted for 21 points before halftime.

“We got some calls; we got some balls bouncing our way,” said senior receiver Mike Shanahan. “Everything just came together, and we played a full 60 minutes. I don't think we've done that all season.”

It wasn't just the seniors' day — junior defensive tackle Aaron Donald was a force with three tackles for loss — but several turned in stellar performances:

• Tino Sunseri completed 21 of 39 passes for 227 yards and two touchdowns.

• Shanahan had five catches for a team-best 62 yards and caught a 16-yard touchdown pass on a nifty double move to the corner.

• Offensive linemen Jacobson and Ryan Turnley paved the way to 365 total yards, the most Rutgers had given up in a conference game this season.

• Safety Jarred Holley had six tackles and a deflected pass.

• Kevin Harper had a perfect kicking day.

Finally, there was tailback Ray Graham, running his heart out in the final home game of his career. He finished with 113 yards to raise his career total to 3,177, past Ironhead Heyward into third place on Pitt's all-time list.

That leaves Graham just 16 yards from passing “Swervin” Curvin Richards for second place, behind Tony Dorsett — and Graham would need a lot of BBVA Compass Bowls to catch Dorsett at 6,526.

Graham even volunteered for the punt team and played gunner.

“I told coach: ‘Put me anywhere on the field, anywhere I can help,' ” Graham said.

Taglianetti became emotional talking about his group of 18 seniors.

“You ask any one of them, I mean, it's been an absolute pleasure to be here and to play for Pitt,” Taglianetti said. “I can't speak highly enough of my senior teammates. Some of the best guys I've ever met, will be some of my best friends forever.

“That's what this program is: It's the players. It's not the coaches. It's not anything that goes on externally. It's about the players.”

And on this day — Senior Day — the players turned in a performance they will savor.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 “The Fan.” His columns appear Thursdays and Sundays. He can be reached at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

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