The Rockets (2-3) were truly overmatched from the outset, as Pitt -- 4-1 for the first time since 2002 -- led 17-0 after one quarter and 24-3 at halftime. The Panthers took advantage of a botched fake punt for their first touchdown and added a defensive score to basically put Toledo away.
"We were looking to get up on them right away and kill 'em early,'' Pitt senior middle linebacker H.B. Blades said. "Our offense got a touchdown on the opening series, and then we (the defense) scored. It was all downhill for Toledo after that. We pretty much kept it rolling from there.''
On the opening possession, Toledo moved from its 28 to the 42 and dropped back to punt on fourth-and-one. But the snap went to back Richard Davis, and he muffed it for a 10-yard loss. Pitt quarterback Tyler Palko needed just three plays to cover the 32 yards. He hit tight end Darrell Strong for 23 yards and on second down connected with Derek Kinder for a nine-yard score. On second down, no gain by LaRod Stephens-Howling, senior right guard John Simonitis suffered a broken right leg. His career is over.
"You hate to see something like that happen to a fifth-year senior, a four-year starter and pretty much the anchor to our offensive line,'' Palko said. "He's going to be sorely missed. The only thing we can do now is win for him so he can enjoy his senior year. ... We need our young guys to step up.''
Freshman Joe Thomas, who has played quite a bit this season, will step in as the starter at right guard. Redshirt sophomore Dom Williams, who moved to left tackle after sophomore John Bachman was lost for the year, likely will move back to backup guard. And freshman Jason Pinkston, who did not play this season until the Toledo game, is a backup tackle now.
"When you start a freshman, every week is a new adventure,'' Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "So, he's young, (but) he's going to be a good player for us. He's everything that we hoped for when we put him in there, and he'll continue to get better every week.''
On Toledo's second series, starting quarterback Brandon Summers -- a redshirt freshman -- dropped back to pass and looked to hit tailback Jalen Parmele with a screen pass. Pitt defensive tackle Gus Mustakas read the play perfectly, picked off the pass and rumbled into the end zone from the 9.
It was Pitt's fourth interception return for a touchdown this season. Cornerback Darrelle Revis and linebacker Clint Session turned the trick against Virginia, and Revis also returned a pick for a score at Cincinnati. It was the first touchdown for Mustakas since he played tight end as a senior for Chaminade Madonna Prep school in Florida two years ago.
"When I caught the ball, I just wanted to make a move and score,'' Mustakas said. "They had a good screen tendency. They ran nine the week before, so we were ready for it. I retreated, and the ball was there. I caught it and just had to put a move on the quarterback to take it in.''
Pitt continued to struggle running the ball and ran three straight plays (for just four yards) on its next series, but Conor Lee boomed a 47-yard field goal to save the drive. The Panthers ran for 185 yards on 43 carries (a 4.3 average), but it wasn't respectable until redshirt freshman Shane Brooks bolted for a 44-yard gain in the waning minutes.
Brooks led Pitt with 64 yards on nine carries. Stephens-Howling had 18 carries (16 in the first half) for just 50 yards, but he was getting banged up and didn't play much in the second half. "You have to run the football, and we're not doing it like we would like to do it,'' Wannstedt said. "But we'll get there. It might be this week. Syracuse will concentrate on our passing game, and our running game will show up.''
Pitt's passing game, with Palko leading the way, remained sharp. The fifth-year senior was 12-for-15 for 172 yards and two touchdowns. He tossed a one-yard scoring pass to Darrell Strong to give the Panthers a 24-0 lead with 3:30 remaining in the first half.
With his performance, Palko should remain the NCAA leader in passing efficiency and he passed Rod Rutherford into third place on Pitt's career passing list with 6,784 yards. Rutherford had 6,724 yards from 2000-2003. Alex Van Pelt (11,267) and Dan Marino (8,597) hold the top two spots.
Pitt got three rushing TDs in the third. Sophomore fullback Conredge Collins scored from 13 yards out, and freshman Kevin Collier scored from the 5. Another frosh, Dorin Dickerson, made his debut on special teams and later scored on a double-reverse from the 14.
"When the call came in the huddle, my heart dropped a little bit, but I was ready to go,'' Dickerson said. "I was really excited to play, and it got a lot off my shoulders. I felt a lot of pressure to play and to play well. I would have redshirted, if the coaches wanted me to, but I really wanted to play.''
The only remaining question was if Pitt could keep Toledo out of the end zone, and the Panthers answered it with a goal-line stand by the second-teamers on four shots from the 3.
Notes: Blades had 11 tackles and moved into a ninth-place tie with Lewis Moore (2000-2003) with 344 total stops. ... Pitt scored on 5 of 6 red-zone chances and is 15-17 this season. ... The attendance was 31,212.