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Graham leads Pitt over Florida International 44-17

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Ray Graham rushed for 277 yards and three touchdowns, leading a Pitt second-half surge as the Panthers downed Florida International 44-17 at Heinz Field.

With star-back Dion Lewis sidelined due to a shoulder injury he suffered earlier in the week, sophomore tailback Graham took on the load of the carries for the Panthers, turning in a career day that helped push Pitt (2-2) to a huge second half en route to a 44-17 victory over Florida International Saturday afternoon at Heinz Field.

Graham finished his day with an incredible 277-yards and three touchdowns.

His career day marked the second highest rushing performance in Pitt history; only Tony Dorsett's 303-yard game against Notre Dame in 1975 was better.

“With the line that we have, and the wide receivers making those blocks, anything is possible,” said Graham about his performance. “Every play can be a big play. If we just have the energy to run them, we can do it. They made their blocks like always, and big things happened.”

Graham poked in the defining touchdown for the Panthers: a 79-yard agile scamper midway through the fourth quarter that answered an FIU score and gave the Panthers a 30-17 lead, halting the Golden Panthers momentum completely.

“The running game—Ray Graham—was about as good of an effort as I've seen by an individual,” said Pitt head coach Dave Wannstedt. “That was great for him. We knew we had two good tailbacks.”

With Graham carrying the bulk of the load for the unit, the offense tallied up a total of 469 yards, including 300 yards on the ground.

Quarterback Tino Sunseri struggled early, failing to hit open targets with erratic passes, but found his groove in the second half, and finished with a 169 yards through the air, going 15-of-23 with one touchdown, an early-fourth quarter nine-yard rollout pass to Henry Hynoski, which capped an 11-play, 46-yard drive that gave the Panthers a 23-10 lead.

“I felt we found a groove later,” said the sophomore Sunseri. “Obviously the work Ray did helped the rest of the offense finding momentum.”

Mike Shanahan led the way for the Panthers receiving core with four receptions for 82 yards, including two clutch catches down the middle of the field, setting up a Dan Hutchins 38-yard field goal right before halftime, putting Pitt ahead by three points.

“I thought we stepped up late and got the job done,” said Lucas Nix, who played his first game at right guard, after moving from his tackle position. “We had some problems to fix, and we still do, but I thought we came together and did what we needed to do to get this win.”

The bend-don't-break style of the defense kept this game going back-and-forth, despite FIU never having a lead after the first quarter.

The Golden Panthers punched in 316 total yards, and found success early on long, draining drives that kept Pitt's defense on its heels for much of the first half.

FIU scored on a Darriet Perry one-yard touchdown run, capping off a strenuous 13-play, 75-yard drive, which ate up 5:27 in the first quarter, and gave the Golden Panthers their only lead at 7-3.

Quarterback Wes Carroll led the Golden Panthers, going 23-of-38 for 223 yards, setting up all three of FIU's score's with solid passing. 

Carroll, who was not sacked one time coming into this game, was sacked twice including a Chas Alexih take-down for a nine-yard loss deep in the third quarter, that helped force a three and out and punt.

“They came out and went at us hard,” said Pitt defensive end Jabaal Sheard, who finished with five tackles. “I thought we slowed them down when it counted, and kept them off the board at the right times.”

Senior Dom Decicco, who played safety for a majority of his Panthers-career, switched to the nickel position, putting in a solid performance with five tackles, including a big third down stick that halted an FIU drive and forced a punt late in the third quarter.

“It felt good getting out there and making some plays,” said Decicco who had been battling a hamstring injury coming into the game. 

The unforgettable performance of Graham was the first time a Panther rushed for over 200 yards, since LaRod Stephens-Howling had 221 yards in 2006 against Syracuse.

His efforts did not go unnoticed.

“We watched film on him last week and when (Ray) was at the 100-yard mark, we believed that he was going to get the bulk of the carries in the fourth quarter,” said Florida International head coach Mario Cristobal. “He's a good ball player that we were able to control when we were moving the ball in the first half. In the second half, we weren't doing that as much and we didn't have the ball. They wore us down.”

Graham reached the 100-yard rushing mark for the third consecutive time this season. He eclipsed the century mark in just the second quarter, despite not even knowing he would start until gameday.

“Actually it was the day of the game,” said Graham about when he got word of getting the starting nod. “Since Dion was hurt with his shoulder, we didn't know if he would be able to play or not, so to play it safe, they put me out there.”

When asked if Graham would get the starting job next week against Notre Dame, Wannstedt simply said “Dion's starting.”  The coach also stated that both backs will be needed.

“Whatever coach wants me to do I'll do,” Graham said. “Me and Dion will carry the ball and do our best whenever we're called on.”

For a second straight week, the Panthers exceeded double-digit penalties, getting hit with 10 for 64 yards, including a 15-yard penalty on Graham for taking off his helmet after his 79-yard dash and score.

Moreover, the defensive line committed five offside penalties, with all four ends guilty at least once.

“I told the kids that we just shoot ourselves in the foot way too many ways,” said Wannstedt. “We were the least penalized team in the conference, and one of the best in the country, a year ago at this time. Now we have 10 penalties. That's unacceptable. We're not going to accept this.”

Every time Graham touched the ball, it was a play that resulted in a solid gain. While the 79-yard run was an incredible feat of speed and agility, the junior tailback really wooed the crowd with a smooth and quick 19-yard touchdown run, avoiding defenders and pushing his way to the endzone, to give the Panthers a 37-17 lead with 4:22 left in the game.

Pitt travels to South Bend in a non-conference battle with Notre Dame next Saturday at 3:30. The game will be televised on NBC.

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