It was nip and tuck in the first half, but behind one of the greatest rushing performances in school history, Pitt pullled away from Florida International for a 44-17 win before a paid attendance of 45,207.
Ray Graham not only led Pitt, but jumpstarted the rest of the team with several sensational plays. He finished with 274 yards on 29 carries and three touchdowns. He also caught three passes for 19 yards, and he also returned three kicks for 78 yards, giving him a grand total of 374 all-purpose yards.
The biggest thing fans may have noticed about the running game, was from the start as it as Graham who started, not Lewis.
"Dion was banged up all week in practice," head coach Dave Wannstedt said. "He was ready to play, but was held out intentionally."
The idea was to rest Lewis up, and have him back for next week's game at Notre Dame. After the game, Wannstedt said Lewis is still the starter.
"Yes, he is," Wannstedt said, when asked if Lewis is still the starter, following Graham's performance. "The way we want to run the ball, I've gone through four tailbacks. We were so fortunate that Dion stayed healthy last year with the number of carries he had. We're going to need them both. Ray Graham had as good an effort as I've seen by an individual. That was great for him."
Graham--who was still clutching the game ball in his postgame meeting with the media, says he's fine with that decision.
"I just want to go out there and play, whatever the team needs from me," Graham said. "Whether I start or not, I just go out there and have fun."
Pitt held off Florida International for the first half, despite Graham rushing for 102 yards on 14 carries in the first half--all of which came in the first quarter. The Panthers trailed 7-3 in the first half, following a 13-play, 75-yard drive that lasted five and a half minutes. After regaining the lead on Graham's first touchdown run of the game--a 34-yarder--the Golden Panthers answered with a 16-play drive, going 67 yards in just over six minutes. They tied the game back up at 10-10 with 1:01 left in the first half.
The Panthers offense--as they would all day--got a jump start from Graham. He returned the kickoff 24 yards to the Pitt 28. Mike Shanahan--who led Pitt with four catches for 82 yards--was the hero of the drive, catching an 18-yarder from Sunseri on the first play, then breaking a tackle on his second catch of the drive for a gain of 28. Sunseri spiked the ball, then scrambled for a gain of 4 to set up Hutchins with the field goal attempt.
Hutchins tacked on a 38-yard field goal--his third of the day, extending Pitt's lead to 16-10 with just under three minutes left in the third quarter. It looked as if Pitt was going to have to hang on for a victory. After holding the Golden Panthers to another punt, and clinging to the 16-10 lead at the end of the third quarter, both teams combined for five fourth quarter touchdowns--including four from Pitt.
Graham got Pitt into Florida International, before Sunseri hit Shanahan for a 24-yard gain to the Golden Panther 8. Two plays later, Sunseri hit Henry Hynoski for a nine-yard score--Hynoski's first touchdown of the season, but also his first touchdown reception. Though it was Shanahan who came up big on Saturday, Wannstedt admitted after the game he'd like to see more of Jon Baldwin, who caught two passes for 14 yards.
"The plan was to get him involved early," Wannstedt said. "We tried to get him involved in some deep plays. As games get tougher, we're going to need more from him, without a doubt."
Florida International answered with a quick scoring drive, a four-play, 47-yard drive lasting 1:32, that resulted in a Darriet Perry three-yard touchdown run. After beating Pitt at its own game of playing keep away. The Golden Panthers trailed 23-17 with 12 minutes left.
That's when Graham came through, with what's arguably the play of the game. On a 3rd-and-13 on its own 6, which was preceded by a fumbled snap and a loss of one by Graham, Graham caught a 15-yard pass from Sunseri, where he stretched himself over for the first down, after being tackled by two defenders. Wannstedt praised Graham's extra effort, and referred to it as a key turning point of the game.
"It probably was (a turning point)," Wannstedt said. ""Just individual effort. (Graham's) After contact was as good--Dion's had some great effort, Shady's (LeSean McCoy) had some great effort, LaRod (Stephens-Howling) did--but I think it was the second-best rushing total behind Tony Dorsett."
Following that 15-yard gain, Graham burst through an open hole up the middle, on his way for a 79-yard score. A penalty came out on the play, which led some wondering if the play would be negated. Safety Pat Costello left the sideline too early, and was flagged. Wannstedt said he wasn't bothered by Costello walking out too early, but said he had never seen such a thing called that way in a game before. Sunseri was also called for unsportsmanlike conduct after his touchdown pass to Hynoski, for taking his helmet off too early.
"(Sunseri) took his helmet off in the end zone," Wannstedt said. "He said he didn't, but that's what the flag was for. Pat Costello, he's a great kid. He runs out when Ray runs by him, and they throw the flag on him. I've never had that--36 years of coaching."
Despite coming up big with the four touchdowns in the fourth quarter, Wannstedt wasn't all that pleased. He does have some other things to sort through, mainly penalties. Pitt was penalized 10 times for 64 yards, including five pre-snap penalties. They fumbled once, but that fumble--a Mike Cruz fumble at the FIU 15 in the third quarter--was a red zone turnover. The penalties more than anything, show cause for concern.
"We're not going to accept (mistakes)," Wannstedt added. "If we're going to beat good football teams, we have to clean some of these things up."
Despite allowed over 200 passing yards for the fourth time this year, Wannstedt was generally pleased with his defense. The most notable change was Dom DeCicco moving into what Wannstedt calls an extra defensive back, though it looks like a weak-side linebacker position. DeCicco finished with six tackles in his first shot at the position, while redshirt freshman Jason Hendricks got his second start at safety.
"Dom was moved to nickel back," Wannstedt said. "It looks like it's WILL linebacker, which in reality is. Every team we face until we play Connecticut is going to be three receivers, four receivers. By putting a safety in there at linebacker, it gives us a better athlete as far as coverage. Dom is perfect for it, because he's physical enough to play the run. For his first time under fire, I thought he did a good job."
Entering the game, FIU quarterback Wesley Carroll had been sacked once all season, in a total of 123 passing attempts all season. Though low by their standards, the Pitt defense got to him twice in 38 passing attempts.