Sophomore quarterback Tino Sunseri, making his first career start at home, completed 24-of-34 passes for 275 yards, with two touchdowns, and one interception.
Ray Graham returned to action, and was able to find his way to 115 yards on the ground, with two rushing scores, including a 64-yarder in the fourth quarter, that capped the scoring for the Panthers. He split carries with Dion Lewis, who rushed 10 times for 27 yards.
"We have so many young players with so much growth potential," Pitt head coach Dave Wannstedt said after the game. "As long as our players keep working like we have worked over the past couple of weeks, we should expect to improve week after week."
Pitt was without starters Greg Romeus and Dom DeCicco, as well as Andrew Taglianetti. Left guard Chris Jacobson also went down with an injury in the first half, and did not return. He was replaced by Ryan Turnley at left guard. Jacobson's injury was classified as a twisted ankle, with x-rays coming back negative.
"Twisted ankle, they x-rayed it, no break, so it's just a sprain," Wannstedt said of Jacobson. "Greg was excused here from the game, because of personal reasons, and he'll be back here (Sunday)," Wannstedt added."
In Romeus' place, Brandon Lindsey finished with two sacks. Chas Alecxih, in just his second career start at defensive tackle, led Pitt with three sacks. Overall, Pitt limited the Wildcats to 73 rushing yards on 35 carries.
Even without Romeus, Jabaal Sheard could not get to the quarterback early. Interestingly, it wasn't until Justin Hargrove and Nate Nix came in to the game, that the Panthers defensive line finally came up with a big play. Nix dropped running back Davonte Peters for a 10-yard loss, forcing a third down, which led to a punt. Though New Hampshire only got as far as their own 40 on their second drive of the game, it was a nine-play drive, and Nix can take the credit in helping get Pitt‘s defense off the field after a long drive.
"I thought our defensive line showed up today," Wannstedt said. "We expect that out of those guys. The exciting thing was seeing Nate Nix out there. We mentioned Chas, Aaron Donald, Tyrone Ezell played. We played nine defensive linemen today. We got a lot of good play from a lot of the young kids."
Some can argue that Nix and Hargrove would not have normally been out there if it was in the heat of the moment of a Big East game. However, Sheard had not made any plays to this point in the season. Nix came up with one for the defensive line, something Pitt badly missed in the season-opener against Utah. That one play set the tone for the rest of the day, for the defensive line.
On New Hampshire's next series, Brandon Lindsey--making his first career start, came up with the defense's first sack of the season. Lindsey has obviously the next guy in line for awhile. The early plays made by Nix and Lindsey have been more than anyone else had produced on the defensive line, through the first two games.
The offense looked sluggish in the first half. The defense came up with a big play on the first play of the game--a Jared Holley interception--his second in two games. Instead of going for a quick score after the interception, the coaching staff played it conservatively. Instead of letting either of the 6-5 receivers Jon Baldwin or Mike Shanahan go up and get the ball, or at least take a shot at it, the first two play calls of the game were screen passes intended for Baldwin. One was completed, the other was not. The Panthers settled for a 22-yard field goal.
Pitt ground it out on its first touchdown drive of the game, an 11-play, 54-yard drive. Though it was a typical grind-it-out kind of drive for the Pitt offense, there was very little room to run for both Dion Lewis and Henry Hynoski. Lewis' biggest gain of the drive was a nine-yarder. Of more significance on this drive, was Chris Jacobson going down with the ankle injury. Ryan Turnley replaced him at left guard. It wasn't Jacobson being bothered by the injury, or Turnley not being ready. It was the whole group struggling. Still, the Panthers were able to get the score.
Offensive line woes continued to haunt the Panthers on their next offensive series. Despite completions of 24 and 22 to Devin Street--his first career reception--and Lewis, respectively, Pitt had to settle for a field goal. Sunseri was blindsided for a loss of 11. The Panthers--just as they did against Utah--hurt themselves again, when it came to scoring opportunities. As Dan Hutchins' initial attempt from 39 yards was good, Jack Lippert was called for a false start. That pushed the field goal attempt back five yards. Hutchins attempted the 44-yarder, which ended up being wide left.
"It was tough today," Wannstedt said of the line's woes. "We struggled running the ball in the first half. We changed it up in the second half. I thought the coaches did a nice job. We started running some draw plays, then we opened some things up. We‘re not where we need to be. We‘re going to get there. We‘re committed to it, but we‘re not there yet."
Though Lippert seems to be in the mix in that interior line--possibly pushing Greg Gaskins or Alex Karabin, one mistake like this for a young player, is usually not a good spell under Dave Wannstedt. Wannstedt, historically, has gone the way of more experienced players over the years. If there's a younger player pushing for time--as in the case of a Lippert--a false start penalty like this weighs more heavily against a player like him, challenging for time, than it would for a starter.
New Hampshire had one last shot, to maybe tie the game up before halftime, but the Pitt defense came up with a big stand. A Chas Alecxih sack halted the Wildcats drive, which may have been the biggest stand of the game. Instead of getting the opportunity to tie the game, or even get a long field goal drive to make it 10-6 in favor of Pitt at the half, New Hampshire had to punt the ball away.
Though it was Sheard, who struggled against Utah to make plays, and struggled early getting his hands on the quarterback, Alecxih credited Sheard's presence, for helping him get the sack--the first of three.
"It's perfect," Alecxih said of the help he got from the pressuring ends on Saturday. "(Sheard) and Brandon Lindsey, they both, at least one of the sacks, they pushed somebody towards me. I didn't really have to do much. That's very convenient when you have guys like that."
Pitt answered with an eight-play, 62-yard drive, capped by a two-yard touchdown pass from Tino Sunseri to Cameron Saddler. Sunseri took charge on this drive, which included a 26-yard scamper, which set Pitt up in the red zone. There was a breakdown in coverage on the play, as Sunseri found room, and took off. His first attempt for Baldwin in the end zone drew pass interference. Two plays later, Sunseri hit Saddler for the score.
Instead of taking the grind-it-out approach in the first half, all seven plays of Pitt's first drive of the second half were passes. Sunseri completed five of those seven passes for 61 yards, including three to Dion Lewis for a total of 30 yards. Things were looking good for Pitt until Sunseri was picked off by Ryan McGuinness. Even though the drive didn't end on a positive, it set the tone for how the offense was going to go in the second half.
"As an offense, we want to do whatever the play is called," Sunseri said after the game. "We came out, and they had eight, nine guys in the box. It's hard to run the ball when you have that many people in the box. We're usually able to make the adjustment on the fly. What it tells me, is that whenever you come out and throw the ball so many times, that means Coach Cignetti has faith in me, to where he could make those calls for me. It really makes me feel comfortable in the pocket, and he has full faith in me, and I'm going to be able to make the right decisions, and get the ball in our playmakers' hands."
When the offense took the field again, Sunseri picked up where he left off before the interception. He connected with Jon Baldwin on a short pass, that turned into a long touchdown reception. Baldwin beat his defender on the play, who overplayed the pass. Baldwin then broke another tackle, juked out another defender, and outran everyone else on his way to the end zone for a 56-yard touchdown reception.
With his 100 yards on six receptions, Baldwin had the ninth 100-yard game of his career. He moves into ninth place on Pitt's all-time receiving list, with 1,686 career receiving yards.
Though the Panthers cut down their penalties significantly in this game, from what they committed at Utah, a pass interference call against Antwuan Reed, defending the Wildcats' leading receiver Chris Jeannot, set up New Hampshire inside the five for the first time all day. Two plays later, Peters punched it in for a one-yard touchdown.
Pitt then responded with a nine-play, 80 yard drive, that they finished in just under five minutes. The highlight of the drive was Ray Graham, who carried the ball five times for 48 yards on this drive, including the eight-yard touchdown run that capped the drive. To this point of the game, Lewis had carried the ball nine times for 23 yards. Lewis finished with 27 yards on ten carries.
Going back to what Sunseri said, about throwing the ball to get the New Hampshire defense off track, Graham rushing for 115 yards and two scores is proof that the coaching staff's adjustment worked.
"As soon as you can spread a team out, to where they have to worry about the pass, and where they have to worry about all those guys on the perimeter, it's definitely going to open up running lanes," Sunseri added. "We wanted to take the pressure off the running game. We wanted to spread them out. They can't just load the box on us. We have too many good athletes where we can split the ball out to them, and they can do some things with it. Whenever we were able to make those throws, and runs, it definitely changed the game. We were definitely able to make those runs."
When New Hampshire took the field again, Pitt's defense tightened up again, holding them to a three-and-out. Alecxih ended the drive, just as he had two previous times, with a sack. Alecxih finished with a career-high three sacks against the Wildcats; all three of which came on third downs.
Graham closed the scoring for Pitt with a 64-yard touchdown, making the score 38-10 with 10:43 left in the game. New Hampshire answered, with its second-team offense against Pitt's second-team defense, with a Sean Cullen touchdown reception from Kevin Decker, making the score 38-16.
"To tell you the truth, I hadn't seen much on Ray Graham," New Hampshire head coach Sean McDonnell said. "He was illusive with his schemes, and he took off. We talked more about Lewis, and on that 56-yard play, we had our guys blitz and I was baffled by it. Pitt is a football team with two or three good running backs. Our focus was to stop the run, and they threw the ball and got some big plays with their play-action."