Pitt's motor sputters in win over Buffalo
First, Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri struggled like he was wearing blinders, his passes slamming into the turf while his receivers ran unfettered through the secondary.
Then, suddenly, he recovered, helping lead the Panthers to a 35-16 victory against Buffalo on Saturday night in front of 48,359 largely underwhelmed fans at Heinz Field.
The victory did not please the betters who gave the 31 points, and it was not what first-year coach Todd Graham had promised since January when he spoke of speed, efficiency and high-scoring offense.
"We should have dominated tonight a lot more than we did, I can tell you that," said Graham, whose team led only 7-3 at halftime. "I am not satisfied at all. We have a lot of missed opportunities.
"We ran 43 plays in the first half and only scored seven points. That might be a record."
Running back Ray Graham, though, picked up his struggling teammates, rushing 29 times for 201 yards and three touchdowns, including a 75-yard run in the fourth quarter that set up his final score.
After the long run, Todd Graham wanted Ray Graham to take a breather, but he demanded to re-enter the game and scored from the 1 on the next play.
The game's turning point came on a 47-yard interception return by defensive tackle Chas Alecxih on Buffalo's first drive of the third quarter. Pitt was clinging to a 7-3 lead at the time, but Alecxih gave Pitt the ball at the 20-yard line, and Ray Graham scored two plays later on a 3-yard run.
Overall, the defense did not play well, allowing Buffalo to run 93 plays and record 28 first downs to Pitt's 21. The Bulls scored two touchdowns in the second half after drives of 76 and 64 yards. Buffalo running back Branden Oliver gained 114 on 35 carries.
"You give up 93 plays, and you ought to get 50 points scored on you," Todd Graham said.
Graham didn't sound discouraged, however, pointing out that Sunseri remained "calm, cool and collected" through adversity. He was especially pleased with how Sunseri led Pitt to touchdowns on four of five second-half possessions.
The only time Pitt didn't score after halftime was when Sunseri, who completed 16 of 28 passes for 179 yards and a 17-yard touchdown to receiver Mike Shanahan, lost a fumble.
"He has the hardest job on the football team. He has a harder than job than I have," Todd Graham said of Sunseri.
Sunseri was encouraged that his receivers got open as often as they did. He indicated if that happens again, finding them won't be problem.
"That's just pitch and catch," he said. "Guys were open. That is the intriguing thing. We were able to really connect in the second half, and we were able to build upon that.
"I was really comfortable in the first half. I was understanding where my reads were. I was understanding what the defense was doing. The line gave me a lot of time, and the guys were open.
"The second half, I put the ball on people. The first half I didn't. That's very correctable."
Around the Panthers
Chas Alecxih already was having the best game of any Pitt defender, when he really took matters into his own hands.
The fifth-year senior defensive tackle grabbed his first career interception and returned it 47 yards in a momentum-swinging play early in the second half.
'Play of the game,' coach Todd Graham said.
With Buffalo down, 7-3, and facing a third-and-13 from the Pitt 31-yard line, Alecxih read Chazz Anderson's screen pass and stepped in front of the intended target, Branden Oliver.
As the 6-foot-5, 285-pound Alecxih raced downfield to the Buffalo 20, the Heinz Field crowd got a rare chance to cheer after a lackluster first half.
Alecxih, a former walk-on, said it was the first time he has ever caught a ball playing organized football, including his days as a tight end at Penn Manor.
'I was a pure blocker,' he said. 'I never caught a pass. It felt good.'
Tough day for tackles
Both of Pitt's starting tackles, fifth-year senior Jordan Gibbs and sophomore Juantez Hollins, struggled in the opener.
Hollins allowed steady pressure from Buffalo's all-conference linebacker Khalil Mack in the first half. Gibbs was flagged for holding in the first half and got beat a couple of times by Buffalo defensive end Gordon DuBois.
Gibbs sat out most of the second half -- 'he couldn't breath,' Graham said -- and was replaced at right tackle by fifth-year senior Greg Gaskins.
Hollins, a 6-5, 305-pounder, had won the starting left tackle job during a strong training camp, but he labored at times in his first game-action since his senior year at Aliquippa.
On the bright side, junior center Ryan Turnley, making his first start, was flawless with his shotgun snaps. There were no bad snaps in about 60 plays from shotgun formation.
'I felt the snaps were good,' Turnley said. 'I had a nice, long night at the hotel last night thinking about it. I visualized everyone being perfect. That was a big thing for me. I really focused in on getting my job done.'
The other Graham
Junior H-back Hubie Graham, who sat out last season after transferring from Illinois, had a productive debut with the Panthers. The sure-handed 6-4, 230-pounder caught three passes for 50 yards, including a 21-yarder on a third-and-13 in the second quarter and a 18-yard grab to help set up a touchdown to give Pitt a 21-10 lead late in the third quarter.
'I felt great to be back,' Graham said. 'I put in a ton of work in the spring and in camp. Everything came together.
Kevin Harper, replacing all-Big East selection Dan Hutchins, missed two field goals in the first half.
The junior from Mentor, Ohio, was wide right on a 30-yarder and wide left on a 47-yarder. He also booted a kickoff out of bounds after Pitt had taken a 7-0 lead four minutes into the game. The strong-legged Harper did go 5 for 5 on extra points.
'Field goal kicking was not good in the first half,' Coach Graham said. 'I've got a lot of belief in Harper that he will get it done. We've just got to get better. The missed field goals in the first half were really bad. We've got to make those.'