BUFFALO, N.Y. – Pittsburgh running backs Ray Graham and Rushel Shell each had a touchdown rushing in helping the Panthers snap a two-game skid with a 20-6 win over the Buffalo Bulls on Saturday.
Graham had 74 yards rushing, while Shell had 35 yards rushing and a 41-yard catch as the Panthers' run attack regained its stride. Pitt (3-4) finished with 126 yards rushing after combining for just 120 in its previous two games.
The Panthers, in their final Big East Conference season, avoided their first 2-5 start since 2001 and improved to 4-0 all-time against Buffalo, and 29-3 against Mid-American Conference opponents.
Devin Campbell had 104 yards rushing for Buffalo (1-6), which lost its fifth straight. With the loss, the Mid-American Conference Bulls will finish no better than .500 for the 15th time in 16 years.
Leading 13-6, the Panthers took control on their second possession of the second half on Graham's 7-yard run to cap a nine-play, 58-yard drive.
Panthers quarterback Tino Sunseri, the Big East's most efficient passer this season, sparked the drive by hitting all four passes for 50 yards. It included a 25-yard pass in finding Mike Shanahan open cutting across the middle to convert third-and-14.
Sunseri went 9 of 17 for 128 yards on a blustery, rain-soaked afternoon that featured a heavy rain beginning to fall late in the third quarter.
The Panthers defense also proved stout, limiting Buffalo to convert just seven of 19 third-down chances. Dan Mason, filling in for injured middle linebacker Shane Gordon (high ankle sprain), had 11 tackles and one of the team's three sacks.
The Bulls were competitive in coming off an embarrassing 45-3 loss at Northern Illinois but were sloppy in their homecoming game.
Buffalo quarterback Alex Zordich threw an interception that led to Pitt's first touchdown. The Bulls also botched a field-goal attempt in the third quarter.
Zordich finished 23 of 41 for 165 yards. Kicker Patrick Clarke accounted for all the scoring, hitting both field-goal attempts, from 27 and 41 yards.
Pittsburgh was hoping to use the game against Buffalo as an opportunity to build momentum entering the second half in what's been a confounding season. It's a year in which the Panthers have lost to Youngstown State, an FCS program, and yet upset then-No. 13 Virginia Tech 35-17.
Despite the win, the Panthers' offense continued its string of difficulties in the first half.
Though they scored on three consecutive drives in building a 13-0 lead, they were twice forced to settle for field goals. That included squandering a golden opportunity to blow the game open after Sunseri hit Shell on a screen pass that resulted in a 41-yard gain, giving Pitt the ball at the Buffalo 6-yard line. Two Shell runs and a batted down pass led to Kevin Harper hitting a 22-yard field goal with 2:12 left in the first quarter.
Pitt was coming off a 45-35 loss to Louisville in which it went 0-for-3 on fourth-down conversions. Two weeks ago, the Panthers came up empty despite two fourth-quarter drives inside the Syracuse 30 in a 14-13 loss to the Orange.
Against Buffalo, the Panthers finally found the end zone on their fourth possession when Shell scored on a 4-yard run. It was set up by Jason Hendricks' interception of Alex Zordich's pass.
With the wind at their back, the Bulls responded in the second quarter with two lengthy marches that ended with field goals to cut Pitt's lead to 13-6.
The Bulls were without their two top offensive threats. Running back Branden Oliver (week to week with right leg injury) missed his fourth straight game, while receiver Alex Neutz did not play after being shaken up in a 45-3 loss at Northern Illinois last week.