PITTSBURGH (93-7 The FAN/AP) — Ray Graham lasted all of four plays against Connecticut before going down with a potentially serious right knee injury. After a week spent focusing on slowing down one of the nation’s top running backs, the Huskies never saw Tino Sunseri coming.
Pittsburgh’s junior quarterback passed for a career-high 419 yards and two touchdowns and ran for another score as the Panthers got back into the conference race with a 35-20 victory Wednesday night.
“As a quarterback you just want to move the ball down the field, and I felt like we were able to move the ball consistently and we were able to complete passes,” Sunseri said.
Not bad for a player whose grasp of the starting job has been tenuous at times this season. Sunseri split snaps with freshman Trey Anderson in recent weeks before coach Todd Graham abandoned the experiment after a miserable 26-14 loss to Utah on Oct. 15, a game in which the Panthers managed all of 120 yards.
Graham went with Sunseri because he felt the junior gave the Panthers the best chance to win.
Given the way Sunseri played against the Huskies (3-5, 1-2 Big East), don’t expect to see Anderson back on the field anytime soon.
Sunseri completed 29 of 42 passes and his 419 yards were the most by a Pitt quarterback since Rod Rutherford threw for 419 against West Virginia in 2003. Even if it wasn’t quite enough to please his sometimes exacting coach.
“I thought we would throw for 500, I really did,” Todd Graham said. “Our rhythm was really there tonight. … That’s what I’m used to.”
Just not at Pitt.
Todd Graham built his reputation by turning Tulsa into an offensive juggernaut and hoped for a quick transformation with the Panthers. The “high octane” attack he promised in the offseason has only shown itself occasionally.
Thinking his players were tentative because they were thinking too much, Graham simplified things the last week. The trimmed-down playbook worked.
The Panthers (4-4, 2-1) had little trouble moving the ball against the Huskies behind Sunseri, who made his coach’s vote of confidence pay off with the best game of his career.
Lyle McCombs ran for 124 yards but UConn could get little going in the passing game when it mattered. Johnny McEntee completed 17 of 33 passes for 193 yards and two scores, but the Big East’s worst offense again struggled to move the ball for long stretches.
“It seems like every game we do a pretty good job on certain drives and move the ball really well, either we can’t get a touchdown in the red zone or can’t do it the whole game,” McEntee said. “We just have to work on that.”
The Panthers had no such issues even after losing their biggest weapon 4 minutes into the game.
Ray Graham crumpled to the ground at midfield after having his right leg pinned awkwardly underneath him while getting tackled by UConn’s Jory Johnson following a 1-yard gain. Graham clutched the back of his leg before being helped off the field, where he punched an equipment table before heading to the locker room.
The nation’s second-leading rusher returned to the field in street clothes and is expected to have an MRI on Thursday to determine the extent of the injury.
The Panthers looked dramatically different without their star running back, but the embattled Sunseri appeared capable of keeping the offense afloat. Hitting receivers underneath and letting them do the work, Sunseri caught the UConn defense flat-footed after it spent a week trying to figure out how to slow down Ray Graham.
“We were definitely geared up for Ray Graham and the run game. They have a great run game,” UConn linebacker Sio Moore said. “They did some things that were a little brand new. At the same time, they did some things where they just made a play on us.”
Sunseri made almost all of them. He ran for a team-high 40 yards, including an 8-yard touchdown four plays after Graham went down that gave Pitt a quick 7-0 lead.
Sunseri was just getting started. He hit Mike Shanahan for a 17-yard score to put the Panthers up 14-0 and led a 68-yard drive late in the first half that ended with a 3-yard dive by Zach Brown to put the Panthers up 21-3.
Sunseri’s only mistake came with Pitt going for more in the final seconds of the half. With the Panthers out of timeouts and the ball at the UConn 22, he rolled right and failed to get rid of the ball before getting sacked by Trevardo Williams.
The clock ran out as Sunseri limped toward the sideline in front of a livid Todd Graham. Yet Sunseri appeared fine when the team returned to the field following halftime and, after a brief let-up in the third quarter, the Panthers responded with the kind of close-out performance the coach said his team needed to stay relevant in the Big East race.
UConn made a game of it briefly after McEntee hit Kashif Moore for a 62-yard touchdown pass — the Huskies’ first offensive score in nearly a month — and David Teggart drilled a 31-yard field goal to bring UConn within 21-13 midway through the third quarter.
The Panthers responded quickly, going 82 yards in just five plays with Shanahan doing most of the work on a 27-yard touchdown pass to put Pitt up 28-13.
The Huskies couldn’t get back in it, and Pitt finished off UConn with a late touchdown pass from freshman wide receiver Ronald Jones to Devin Street.
“We’re excited to go on to the next step and that’s Cincinnati,” Todd Graham said. “I like how our guys responded. They responded like champions.”