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September 4, 2011Saturday night's debut of the Todd Graham era at Pitt wasn't necessarily inauspicious, but it also wasn't a ringing endorsement of the Panthers' new style.
"It wasn't pretty," Graham said after the game.
Despite the lack of aesthetic appeal, Pitt did open the Graham era and the 2011 season with a victory, beating Buffalo 35-16 in front of 48,359 at Heinz Field. And the Panthers didn't put in a full 60 minutes of lackluster football; rather, each side of the ball contributed one strong half and one less-than-encouraging performance.
For Pitt's offense, the first half looked like something from the previous six years. Rather than producing the scoring outburst Graham has promised since he was hired in January, Pitt put up just seven points in the first two quarters.
And those seven points came despite the Panthers running 43 plays before halftime.
"I thought we were at a turtle's pace in the first half, so when we came in at halftime, I was surprised to see we ran 43 plays," Graham said. "We had a lot of missed opportunities in the first half."
Among the missed opportunities were an out-of-sync pass from Tino Sunseri to Devin Street in the middle of the field during Pitt's third drive, an uncharacteristic drop by Mike Shanahan, and three overthrown passes by Sunseri - one each to Street, Shanahan, and Cameron Saddler - that could have turned into big gains and points.
The issues were compounded by placekicker Kevin Harper, who missed field goals of 32 and 47 yards in the first half, leaving Pitt with just seven points on 43 plays.
"Obviously Buffalo deserves some of the credit, but a lot of it was us coming out sluggish," Shanahan said. "We were a little overwhelmed at first, but at halftime we got ourselves together and played a lot better.
"We were so excited to play and we definitely came out ready to play; it was just that our bodies were hurting a little bit more than we expected. Luckily we pulled ourselves together."
The offense rebounded in a big way after halftime, scoring four touchdowns on five drives, buoyed by Sunseri completing 6-of-7 passes for 88 yards and a touchdown and junior running back Ray Graham rushing 14 times for 148 yards and three scores. Sunseri finished the game 16-of-28, 179 yards, and one touchdown; Graham rushed for 201 yards and three touchdowns on 29 carries (6.9), including a 75-yard run in the fourth quarter.
Pitt's offense might have been able to be even more productive in the second half if it had gotten more opportunities, but the Panthers' defense struggled.
"We did a great job, I thought, defensively in the first half, and then in the second half we just gave up too many long drives and they kept the ball away from us too much," Graham said.
The issue for Pitt's defense in the second half was an inability to get off the field. After forcing a trio of three-and-outs in the first half and limiting six of Buffalo's seven first-half drives to seven plays or fewer, Pitt gave up a slew of long drives in the second half. After halftime, the Bulls had two 13-play drives, two nine-play drives, and an eight-play drive; along the way, they converted six-of-11 third downs and gained 17 first downs to run a total of 58 plays in the second half.
Buffalo finished the game having run 93 plays, which makes the Bulls' 16 points somewhat remarkable.
"They really came to play; I'll say it like that," redshirt senior defensive tackle Chas Alecxih said after the game. "I don't think it was so much what we didn't do as what they did. They started moving pretty good and went to the quick game to tire us out a little bit."