Panthers trying to stay grounded after big upset

2012-09-17T17:35:00Z Panthers trying to stay grounded after big upsetBy WILL GRAVES / AP Sports Writer La Crosse Tribune
September 17, 2012 5:35 pm  • 

PITTSBURGH — Paul Chryst accepted the game ball celebrating his first victory at Pitt — a stunning and decisive 35-17 win over then-No. 13 Virginia Tech on Saturday — and promptly handed it to equipment manager Tim Enright.

Two days later, Chryst still doesn't know where it is. And to be honest, he doesn't really care.

While the first-year coach appreciated the gesture from his players, he was hardly in the mood to reflect.

``There are a lot of people that did a lot more than I did in that game,'' Chryst said.

It's why Chryst also offered a game ball to director of football relations Bob Junko, one of the few fixtures in a program that's seen more change in the last two years than most see in two decades.

The magnanimous move wasn't lost on the Panthers.

``Coach Junko has been here through thick and thin,'' wide receiver Mike Shanahan said. ``When (Chryst gave him the ball), guys erupted.''

A few moments later, Chryst and his team repeated a chant that Junko has tried to make part of the Pitt lexicon.

``Don't get too high, don't get too low, just keep sawing that wood,'' they roared.

It was a scene of elation and relief. After a pair of dismal losses to Youngstown State and Cincinnati to open the Chryst Era, Pitt responded by thumping the Hokies all the way out of the polls.

``I never thought we lost ourselves or what we were trying to do and accomplish,'' Shanahan said. ``I thought this game was proof of that and of all the hard work and we just kept grinding at it and it finally showed up on the field.''

Chryst stressed the victory, no matter how sweet, means little if Pitt can't build off it.

The Panthers (1-2) host Gardner-Webb (0-3) on Saturday. The Runnin' Bulldogs, a Football Championship Subdivision program, were a last-second addition to the schedule when West Virginia and TCU headed for the Big 12 over the summer.

While it looks like a walkover, the Panthers have already lost to an FCS program this season when Youngstown State drubbed them in the season opener on Sept. 1. Besides, the last time Pitt beat a ranked opponent — a 44-17 whipping over 16th-ranked South Florida last fall — it responded by getting crushed at Rutgers a week later.

The Panthers insist there will be no letdown this time. Maybe it's because of how they beat the Hokies. This wasn't a handful of gimmick plays, it was smashmouth, up-the-gut, right-at-you football that looked an awful lot like the games Chryst used to call while serving as offensive coordinator at Wisconsin.

Senior running back Ray Graham ran for 94 yards and scored three total touchdowns. Freshman Rushel Shell had 157 yards on 23 carries. Chryst would often alternate between the two on each series, with Shell doing the bulk of the work on a 15-play, 88-yard drive in the fourth quarter to seal it.

``We talked about just going out there and believing in each other and playing our game and not letting the other team control how we played,'' Shell said.

Chryst used multiple back combinations during his time in Wisconsin. And he has no definitive plan on how and when to use Shell or Graham, pointing out that Isaac Bennett could also expect to see plenty of action if the game situation dictates.

``I think there's some pride in that running back group,'' Chryst said ``If we can keep that going and if we can keep improving, I think they can fuel each other in a lot of different ways. Ray knew when Rushel was getting hot. Ray responded and made a couple plays.''

So did quarterback Tino Sunseri. The often embattled senior was named Big East Player of the Week after passing for 283 yards and three touchdowns. Sunseri played the final drive on a sore left leg after getting whacked early in the fourth quarter. He hung in there, however, and completed three of four passes on the drive, including a 6-yard touchdown to Shanahan.

``The exciting thing is he can still get better,'' Chryst said of Sunseri. ``He earned being named the Big East Player of the Week and yet he didn't do one thing on his own. It's a great game; it's a team game. You appreciate guys that put themselves out there, but he is not alone.''


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