PITTSBURGH – Pitt’s two decades in the Big East have been marked by missteps and missed opportunities.
Yet in the program’s final Big East home game before bolting to the ACC next summer, the Panthers provided a reminder they can still handle the conference’s best, sometimes with ease.
Tino Sunseri passed for 227 yards and two touchdowns and fellow senior Ray Graham ran for 113 yards and a score as Pitt drilled No. 21 Rutgers 27-6 Saturday.
“We put it together today,” wide receiver Mike Shanahan said. “I don’t think we’ve played 60 minutes like that all season.”
Rutgers (9-2, 5-1 Big East) will still play No. 19 Louisville Thursday with a Bowl Championship Series berth on the line, though the Scarlet Knights head home with little momentum after the Panthers dominated, racing to a 21-0 halftime lead and coasting.
“It was a good one to get,” Pitt coach Paul Chryst said. “The guys were dialed in. They enjoyed playing today. They played together well.”
And they played for their coach, who in his first season on the job has given the program a sense of calm it lacked during a bumpy 14-month span in which it went through four coaching changes.
Those days appear to be over. The proof could be seen during an emotional pregame ceremony in which Chryst gave most of the 18 seniors playing their last home game a hug while being introduced.
The fact the hugs were returned spoke volumes about the level of trust Chryst has engendered in such a short period of time.
“I don’t think any coach in the country could have come in here and did what he’s done,” Shanahan said.
Though Pitt (5-6, 2-4) remains very much a work in progress, the Panthers had little trouble with the Scarlet Knights.
Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova passed for 157 yards with a touchdown and an interception but the Scarlet Knights were never in it on a day Pitt played like the team with everything on the line thanks in part to some words of inspiration in the locker room by the seniors.
“”We just told (the underclassmen) to leave it out on the field,” said Graham, who moved into third on the school’s all-time rushing list. “If you’re not ready to play, stay inside this locker room. That’s one of those attitudes that we have.”
The Scarlet Knights came in the Big East’s biggest surprise, rising to the cusp of the school’s first Big East title despite losing program architect Greg Schiano to the NFL last winter.
First-year coach Kyle Flood stressed his team would not be distracted by an eventful week in which the program announced it was heading to the Big Ten in 2014.
“I didn’t hear any of the talk about anything (other than the game),” Flood said. “To me, we had a focused football team coming in here, but we just didn’t execute on the football field.”
The Scarlet Knights certainly appeared to have their minds on other things on a raw, windy day that made passing hazardous, at least for Rutgers.
Nova was under duress most of the afternoon and left briefly in the first half after getting slammed onto his right (throwing) shoulder. He returned to complete 18 of 37 passes, most of them coming in the second half with the Scarlet Knights in full-out desperation mode.
“Their defensive linemen are really good,” Nova said. “They put a lot of pressure on me, and we really didn’t execute well enough in protection on their pass rush to make a difference.”
There were no such problems for the Panthers, who have been an enigma this fall, haphazardly alternating good and bad performances regardless who they’re playing.
The Panthers have alternated two-game losing streaks and two-game winning streaks all fall, leading Chryst to joke he hoped the pattern would continue over the final two weeks, allowing the Panthers to become bowl eligible for a fifth straight season.
It shouldn’t be an issue if Pitt can take the intensity it on Saturday to South Florida next week.
The Panthers took control during a dominant second quarter. Sunseri hit Shanahan for a 16-yard touchdown to give Pitt the lead, and Rutgers never responded.
The Scarlet Knights had the ball eight times in the first half, and punted eight times. Nova never got comfortable in the blustery conditions and Pitt swarmed whichever Rutgers back happened to carry the ball.
Pitt moved in front 14-0 on a 1-yard touchdown plunge by Graham before the Panthers showed just how far they’ve come under Chryst’s direction during a flawless 2-minute drill late in the half.
Taking over at the Pitt 45 with 1:19 to go, Sunseri directed the Panthers 55 yards in nine plays, the final one a perfect strike to Ed Tinker from 13 yards out that put the Panthers up 21-0 at the break.
Kevin Harper tacked on a 39-yard field goal early in the third quarter to make it 24-0. Rutgers finally got on board on a 17-yard touchdown pass from Nova to Brandon Coleman late in the third quarter but the 2-point conversion failed and Rutgers never threatened to make it interesting.
Now Pitt heads to Tampa with a chance to extend its season as it eyes a future that looks considerably brighter than it did three months ago.
“We know what we have to do,” defensive tackle Aaron Donald said. “We know how important it is to get to bowl game. We don’t care where it is. We just know we have to get there.”
Follow Will Graves at www.twitter.com/WillGravesAP