Tino Sunseri completed 17-of-24 passes for 266 yards and four touchdowns, while Pitt's defense limited Syracuse's ground game to 77 yards on 25 carrries. Four different defensive players forced turnovers for the Panthers.
"After a tough loss last week, we bounced back right from the first play of the game," head coach Dave Wannstedt said. "Defensively, it was the best game we played all year."
Though Pitt had big games on the ground from Dion Lewis (15 carries, 81 yards, TD), Ray Graham (11 carries, 54 yards, receiving TD), there were new faces that stepped up, starting with Pitt's first offensive play. Redshirt freshman Shane Gordon made his first career start on defense, while fellow red shirt freshmen Brock DeCicco and Devin Street made the first start of their careers on offense. Tristan Roberts also started at linebacker, finishing with four tackles and a team-high two tackles for losses.
Street showed why it was the right move on that first play, catching a screen pass from Tino Sunseri. He picked up a key block from Henry Hynoski, then outran everyone for a 79-yard touchdown reception. It couldn't have been a more dramatic tone for Street to haul in his first career touchdown. It was Pitt's longest reception since Jon Baldwin caught a 79-yard touchdown pass last year at N.C. State.
"It was exciting," Street said of his touchdown reception. "Once I got past the second level, once I got out there, it was crazy. We ran it so many times in practice. I wasn't really that nervous."
The block by Hynoski was key, and Wannstedt acknowledged as much after the game.
"We also have (Hynoski) involved in the passing game, probably a little bit more than what shows up," Wannstedt said. "We will put him in on third down sometimes just as a blocker because he is so good with protection. He is on special teams. He is a major player."
Syracuse answered with a 10-play, 83-yard drive, capped off by a Delone Carter one-yard touchdown run. The key play on the drive was a 41-yard playaction pass from Ryan Nassib to Alec Lemon--a career-long reception for Lemon. Wannstedt alluded this week to Nassib being successful on the playaction pass, and he showed it here. Antwuan Reed was in coverage on the play, as Lemon slipped behind him to make a leaping grab at the Pitt 13 yard-line. Carter initially scored two plays later on a 6-yard touchdown run. That play was overturned, after the review showed Carter's knee down at the 1 yard-line, before he fumbled the ball out of the end zone. Carter dove in for the 1-yard touchdown run two plays later, which tied him for ninth place on the school's all-time rushing touchdown list.
Pitt then answered with a punt. The passing game looked to be under control, as Sunseri hit Mike Shanahan on a crossing route on the first play of its second series. During the week, it was asked if there was a rhyme or reason on how the running backs would rotate. On this drive, both Dion Lewis and Ray Graham alternated reps, starting with Graham on the first play. The only run on Pitt's second series was a 2-yard run by Lewis, following Shanahan's gain. When Sunseri looked for Shanahan on the next play, on an out route, Shanahan couldn't haul it in, forcing a third down. On top of that, Pitt was flagged for a late hit on the play, pinning the Panthers at their own 25, facing a 3rd-and-23. Penalties still showed up, despite the 31-point victory. Pitt was penalized 10 times for a total of 99 yards. Sunseri completed to Shanahan--on what looked like the same play as his previous incompletion, but only for a15-yard gain. Still, Sunseri was reeling in the confidence, completing three of his first four passes for 106 yards and the touchdown to Street.
"My confidence all depends on how well I do," Sunseri said. "I think if I go out there and focus on completions, it's a totally different game. I need to keep going, finish completions and follow progressions."
With the score tied 7-7, Pitt forced Syracuse to a three-and-out on its next series. Jabaal Sheard brought pressure all day, as he stopped Delone Carter for no gain on the first play. Interestingly, despite being a presence, that was Sheard's lone tackle on the day. Facing a 3rd-and-short, Nassib looked for Antwon Bailey, but the pass was couldn't be hauled in. Greg Williams was in coverage again, as he was on Syracuse's first drive on third down.
Pitt's offensive line looked shaky on the third series of the game. On the second play, after a short three-yard completion from Sunseri to Ray Graham, Graham was touched in the backfield initially on a run. He was able to escape the tackle and pick up three yards. Sunseri was sacked by Chandler Jones on the third play, forcing a punt.
One thing that was more evident with each passing series was the pressure being applied by Pitt's defensive line. Though the four starters on the defensive line combined for a total of five tackles on the day, they were making their presence felt. Nassib started off strong for the game, but his first pass on this series was tipped by Chas Alecxih for an incompletion. His third down pass was thrown into the ground, as the sophomore from West Chester was starting to look rattled.
"Last night we got the message that if you are better than your guy at your position, then we should win this game, and everyone was better at their position," Sheard said. "We had some good hustle. Once they got the first touchdown, we kind of got tired and relaxed. But we just have to continue to practice."
Cameron Saddler set up the next touchdown, returning the ensuing punt 31 yards to the Syracuse 22--Pitt‘s longest punt return of the season. Just as Pitt's lack of a return game hurt itself against Notre Dame in the game of field position, the opposite was happening at Syracuse. The return set Pitt up at the Syracuse 22. Saddler finished the game with 96 total return yards, including 76 in the first quarter.
"Cam Saddler, I have to mention Cam, bouncing back after last week," Wannstedt said. "I thought he made good decisions on the punts, caught the ball in a crowd, and the long punt return that he had set up our second score. Cam was big for us from the standpoint of getting some momentum going."
Sunseri found Graham five plays later for a 15-yard touchdown pass. Another thing Pitt has wanted to establish this season, but hasn't, was converting red zone opportunities into touchdowns. Here, they did just that. Pitt led 14-7 at the end of the first quarter.
"When I scored the touchdown, it felt like I didn't score," Graham said. "I didn't know what happened. I caught it, and I was looking at the ref, and he didn't signal (for a touchdown). I didn't know what was going on."
Pitt's defensive line kept up with the pressure as the second quarter began. They held Carter and Bailey to short gains on the first two plays of Syracuse‘s first offensive series of the quarter. Though Nassib got back on track with a four-yard completion. The Orange punted the ball back to the Panthers, who answered with a seven-play, 70-yard drive, twice converting key third downs. Pitt converted 6-of-13 first downs for the game. As if the defensive line wasn't providing enough momentum with its pressure, Syracuse was called for defensive pass interference on the first play of this drive. As Sunseri looked for Street--this time in one-on-one coverage, his defender was called for pass interference. It was a spot foul, which moved the ball 12 yards. Pitt used Ray Graham to set up the pass, as he carried five times for 28 yards, including a 13-yard run on the first play of the drive. He converted a 3rd-and-3 on the drive, with a gain of eight yards to set Pitt up at the Syracuse 30. Sunseri hit Mike Shanahan for the 30-yard touchdown--the first touchdown catch of Shanahan's career. To this point of the game, Sunseri had completed 6-of-8 passes for 154 yards and three touchdown passes to this point of the game, without attempting a pass to Jon Baldwin yet.
"The run game makes it possible for me, (Baldwin), Street and Cam to make plays," Shanahan said. "Whenever (the receivers) start making plays, then it opens up the run game. It kind of all works together. We just have to keep working at it."
After another three-and-out, Pitt took over at its own 24 yard-line, answering with a 10-play, 76-yard scoring drive. While Graham set up the previous touchdown, Dion Lewis was pivotal in keeping Pitt's fourth scoring drive of the day going. He closed the drive with a one-yard touchdown run, after running the ball four times for 49 yards on the drive. Lewis also converted a third down on the drive, catching a short pass from Sunseri and turning it into a nine-yard gain. Though Lewis had the most touches on the drive, the turning point came on a 11-yard reception by Mike Cruz. Initially, it appeared that Mike Shanahan had a block in the back, as Cruz turned up field after the catch. After the officials talked it over, the flag was waved off. Cruz converted the other third down of the drive on a six-yard reception.
Though Nassib got back on track on what would be Syracuse's final drive of the first half--competing 4-of-5 passes for 30 yards, the drive ended on a Jarred Holley interception. Jabaal Sheard got great pressure on Nassib, as he tried to roll to his left. Sheard got to him right as the ball was thrown. Holley had plenty of time waiting for the ball to come down into his hands. It was the first interception by a Pitt defensive player since Holley's pick against Miami--a streak of 100 consecutive passing attempts by Pitt opponents without an interception. Pitt ran out the clock, taking a 28-7 lead into halftime.
Pitt went three-and-out on its first series of the second half, starting the half with the ball. Unfortunately, they couldn't move the ball much. Wannstedt has shown over the years when building up a big lead, to just run the ball to try to grind out the game.
Syracuse took over, after back-to-back penalties on the punt attempt by both teams, with the ball at his own 40. Just like he did in Syracuse's final drive of the first half, Nassib started the drive strong, completing 2-of-4 passes to start the drive. After Tristan Roberts was called for pass interference against Jose Cruz, setting Syracuse up at the Pitt 25, the Pitt defense tightened up. Jabaal Sheard came off the edge and stripped Delone Carter of the ball. Nassib recovered the fumble. On the next play, the Orange was called for a false start. As bad things happen in threes, so did Syracuse's offense. Ricky Gary picked off Nassib's next pass, and returned it 80 yards for a touchdown, giving Pitt a 35-7 lead. It was Gary's first touchdown since he returned a fumble three yards for a touchdown against Louisville two years ago, and it was Pitt's first defensive touchdown since Greg Williams returned an interception 51 yards for a touchdown against Louisville last year. Afterwards, Gary was presented the game ball.
"Yes, I was really surprised," Gary said, when the ball came his way. "I was thinking, 'Is he really throwing this ball?' When I caught it, I was thinking I have to score this one. So, that was the first (interception returned) touchdown of my career."
Pitt led 35-7 with just over 10 minutes left, as both teams traded punts. With just under seven minutes left in the third quarter, Nassib got in a rhythm again. After a 20-yard punt return set the Orange up at their own 40, Nassib completed two passes--including an 18-yarder to Alec Lemon, to get his team to the Pitt 33. He found Lemon on the next play for a gain of eight, but Dom DeCicco made the initial contact, jarring the ball loose. Jason Hendricks recovered the fumble, and Pitt had the ball back, inching towards the start of the fourth quarter.
Pitt tried to play it more conservatively on its ensuing possession, but was forced to punt. Pitt ran seven plays, with Dion Lewis carrying the ball four times for 18 yards, but Sunseri was sacked on third down by Mike Holmes, who came free off the right side.
Syracuse answered with a 11-yard touchdown pass from Nassib to Van Chew, capping a 12-play, 81-yard drive. There was nearly a full fourth quarter to play, as Pitt looked for a way to grind out the game. Ray Graham was back at running back, gaining nine yards on his second carry of the drive, giving the Panthers a first down. Instead of running the ball some more, trying to eat up more clock, Sunseri found Jon Baldwin over the middle for the junior receiver's first catch of the game. Baldwin turned it in to a 61-yard gain, to the Syracuse 13 yard-line. Though Pitt didn't come away with a touchdown on this drive, Dan Hutchins kicked a 24-yard field goal to extend Pitt's lead to 38-14, with just over nine minutes to play.
"I think we didn't do things to kill ourselves," Wannstedt said. "We got touchdowns when we had opportunities. We didn't have a bunch of crazy penalties on offense or defense that stopped drives. We were more consistent as a team. Field position was good, kicking game was good."
Pitt put the game away on the next series, forcing its fourth turnover on the day. At the Syracuse 38, Ryan Nassib and center Ryan Bartholomew botched the exchange. Greg Williams scooped the ball up, and returned it 32 yards to the Syracuse six yard-line. On the very next play, Sunseri found Brock DeCicco for the touchdown pass--Sunseri's fourth of the day, and DeCicco's first career catch and touchdown reception. Though the game was out of reach at that point, Wannstedt appreciated such a feat.
"It was great for Mike Shanahan to get his first touchdown of his career," Wannstedt said. "Brock DeCicco,his first touchdown. Devin Street, his first touchdown. Every year, at the end of the year, we step back and say, 'Where did this guy come from and how did he step up?' We are seeing signs of that at this point.
"It is kind of a new season, and you hate to say that. Like I said last week, you have to not make the same mistakes. It is a new season; it is conference play and anytime you win a conference game on the road, it's a good win. To come up here and play in this atmosphere and play a 4-1 team that is playing with a lot of confidence that just beat another conference team, it is really a good win."