A videotaped message from ACC commissioner John Swofford offered Pitt a warm welcome to the ACC in 2013 moments before the Panthers hosted conference power Virginia Tech on Saturday.
Somehow – after two baffling, listless losses to open the Paul Chryst era – Pitt looks ready to make the move.
Ray Graham rushed for 94 yards and two scores and added an 18-yard touchdown reception as the Panthers upset the 13th-ranked Hokies in a 35-17 romp.
”We definitely went out there and made noise today,” Graham said. ”I think playing an ACC team just gives us a feeling for what we can do when it’s time to go in the ACC. This is a good ACC team. It can only get better from here.”
It couldn’t have gotten much worse for the Panthers (1-2), who began the season getting upset at home by Youngstown State then blown out on the road at Cincinnati.
Yet Chryst, the program’s third coach in as many seasons, doesn’t really do panic. Even with the seemingly surging Hokies (2-1) looming, he told his players things would be fine so long as they stuck to the plan.
”It’s not like the movies, `Any Given Sunday,’ it’s not just a pregame speech,” Chryst said. ”It’s the process and that’s what you appreciate going through. This is the culmination of the work week.”
One the Panthers hope provides a welcome breakthrough.
Tino Sunseri passed for 283 yards and three touchdowns and freshman running back Rushel Shell added 157 yards as Pitt ended the nation’s longest road winning streak. The Panthers raced to a quick 21-0 lead, forced four turnovers and took advantage of uncharacteristically sloppy play by Virginia Tech.
”I thought (Pitt was) hitting on all cylinders, and I thought it was their day,” Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer said. ”We’ve got to play a lot better. (But) Pitt deserves a lot of credit. They played hard, and they played well. And they got the win today.”
The Hokies had won 13 straight true road games but were stunned by the Panthers in the game’s first 20 minutes and never really threatened. Logan Thomas completed just 14 of 31 passes for 265 yards and one touchdown against three interceptions against a defense that managed just one sack and no turnovers through the season’s first two weeks.
All that changed on a day Pitt held the Hokies to just 59 yards rushing and stopped a pair of fourth-down attempts in the second half to snuff out any hope Virginia Tech had of rallying.
”Their first two games, they just didn’t play as hard as they did today,” Thomas said. ”They’re a good defense. They’re strong, and they’re physical. They’re fast, and they make you make mistakes. They did that today, and that’s what won them the game. They played real hard.”
Pitt is jumping to the ACC next year along with Syracuse and will face Hokies on a yearly basis as part of the league’s Coastal Division, reigniting a spirited rivalry that ended in 2004 when Virginia Tech and Miami abruptly left the Big East with Boston College officially joining them a year later.
The Panthers sent off an emphatic opening salvo.
Using Graham and Shell to chew up yardage and time, the Panthers controlled the ball for over 38 minutes and rolled up 537 yards against one of the better defenses in the country. Not bad for a team that looked lost at times against lesser foes.
”Those two losses were big for us,” wide receiver Devin Street said. ”I think it was an eye-opener for us.”
Just like this one will be for the Hokies, though Beamer downplayed Pitt’s early season struggles, calling it the byproduct of having three different coaches in as many seasons.
The Panthers think they’ve finally found a keeper in Chryst, who has given the program a sense of calm. He insisted there was no panic in his team after such a horrific start.
He was right.
Instead, it was the Hokies who looked jittery during a nightmarish first half in which the Panthers built a 21-3 advantage behind tenacious running from Graham, a pair of interceptions by safety Jason Hendricks and a fumble by Virginia Tech running back deep in Hokie territory that set up an easy Pitt score.
Virginia Tech has won 211 games since Beamer took over in 1987, but none after trailing by three touchdowns.
The Hokies got within 21-10 in the third quarter following Kyshoen Jarrett’s 94-yard punt return for a score, but the Panthers responded with an expert toss from Sunseri to Graham, whose surgically repaired right knee appears just fine.
Again Virginia Tech responded with a big play, as Thomas hit Marcus Davis for an 85-yard catch-and-run to make it 28-17. And when the Hokies got the ball back at the Pitt 36 following a Sunseri interception early in the fourth quarter, it looked as if the Panthers were wobbling.
Thomas was sacked on first down and followed it up with two straight incompletions. The Hokies punted and Pitt drove 88 yards in a crunching 15-play drive to put Virginia Tech away. At one point the Hokies had appeared to hold Pitt to a field goal, but an offside penalty on the kick gave Pitt a first down at the Virginia Tech 4 and Sunseri followed with a 4-yard toss to Mike Shanahan to put the Hokies away.
”I knew a lot of people had us counted out already,” Pitt linebacker Shane Gordon said. ”But in our locker room we know we can do and we showed that.”