The 2012 season for Paul Chryst and the Pitt Panthers has been filled with more ups-and-downs than a roller coaster ride at your favorite theme park.
That trend continued Saturday afternoon at Heinz Field.
After laying an egg in terms of effort their last time out, the Panthers used an inspired performance on both sides of the ball to come away with a 27-6 upset win over No. 18 Rutgers.
The Scarlet Knights came into the game with one of the best defenses in the country, but it was the Panthers’ defense who stepped up with their best performance of the season.
Pitt knocked Rutgers starting quarterback Gary Nova out of the game early, but he wasn’t effective to begin with and neither was replacement Chas Dodd. Nova returned but by then the Pitt defense had already done its part to win the game.
The Panthers limited Rutgers to only 50 first half yards and got off the field efficiently, limiting the Scarlet Knights to 0-for-8 on third down in the first half. Rutgers had eight first half possessions and Pitt forced three-and-outs on six of them, allowing only two total first downs in the first two quarters of play.
Each team exchanged punts throughout the first quarter, but once Pitt got the field position advantage in the second quarter, their offense went to work.
Tino Sunseri broke the scoreless tie when he hit Mike Shanahan with a 16-yard touchdown to cap off an eight-play, 80-yard drive.
Later in the second quarter Pitt had the chance to go up 14-0 but Sunseri lost a fumble on the Rutgers 2-yard line. However, Pitt closed the half very strong.
Ray Graham capped off a short field and scored from a yard out with 2:17 left in the half, on a drive that consumed only 28 yards. Pitt was helped during the possession by a pair of gift personal foul calls on the Scarlet Knights.
Immediately after the touchdown, the Pitt defense forced another punt and got another short field to work with.
Sunseri got the ball at his own 45-yard line with only 1:19 left in the half and led the Panthers on a nine-play drive that ended with a 13-yard touchdown pass to Ed Tinker, sending Pitt into the locker room with a 21-0 lead.
Sunseri finished the day completing 21-of-39 passes for 227 yards and the two touchdowns. He was helped out by the running game as Graham rushed for 113 yards on 23 carries. In the process, he moved past Craig Heyward into third place on the Panthers’ all-time rushing list and is only a handful of yards away from passing Curvin Richards for second place.
The first half performance was all the Panthers really needed. Kevin Harper added a field goal in each of the third and fourth quarters and Rutgers added a meaningless touchdown in the third on an 11-yard touchdown pass from Nova to Brandon Coleman.
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.
They can do that with a win at South Florida next week.