PITTSBURGH – Ray Graham ran for 277 yards and three touchdowns in his first college start and Pittsburgh shook off three sluggish quarters to beat Florida International 44-17 on Saturday.
Graham's third consecutive 100-yard game — his first two were off the bench — represented the second-highest rushing total in Pitt history. Only Tony Dorsett gained more, running for 303 yards against Notre Dame in 1975, the season before he won the Heisman Trophy.
Graham scored on runs of 79, 34 and 19 yards for the Panthers.
And Pitt (2-2) needed every yard Graham gained against an opponent whose signature victory to date since starting football in 2002 was a win against Toledo in 2008.
The Panthers led only 13-10 at the half and 16-10 after three quarters before scoring four touchdowns in the fourth quarter against winless Florida International (0-4), which is 14-72 since starting football. Graham scored two of them.
Florida International managed to keep it close for much of the game against a team that was ranked No. 15 in The Associated Press preseason poll, answering Tino Sunseri's 9-yard touchdown throw to fullback Henry Hynoski early in the fourth quarter with Darriet Perry's second touchdown run of the game.
But the Golden Panthers had no answer for Graham, who replaced injured second team All-American Dion Lewis (shoulder) with a performance reminiscent of Lewis' closing stretch a season ago when he had eight consecutive games of 110 yards or more to conclude a 1,799-yard season.
After Perry's second touchdown made it 23-17 with 12:07 remaining, Graham kept Pitt's next possession going by carrying three tacklers an extra two yards to gain a first down on a 15-yard run on third and 13. He then burst through the left side of Pitt's line on his 89-yard run on the next play, causing such an enthusiastic celebration along his own sideline that Pitt was penalized after the play.
Graham, expected to share time at running back last year before Lewis ran for 319 yards in his first two college games, then gained 17 yards on two carries on Pitt's next possession before ending it with his 19-yard TD run, turning what was a close game for 50 minutes into a rout.
Graham might have threatened Dorsett's school record, but was pulled with 4:22 to play and backup Chris Burns scored Pitt's fourth and last touchdown of the fourth quarter on a 4-yard run.
Lewis was held out with a shoulder injury that apparently occurred in an embarrassingly bad 38-3 loss to Miami on Sept. 23. With Graham no longer forced to share carries with Lewis, he assured himself of a third consecutive 100-yard game with a 34-yard touchdown run midway through the second quarter that put Pitt ahead 10-7.
Actually, it was a 32-yard run and 2-yard leap into the end zone as Graham eluded a tackler by launching himself toward the goal line. Graham's previous career high was 115 yards against New Hampshire on Sept. 11.
Florida International had gone ahead less than two minutes before on Perry's 1-yard run. The Golden Panthers, which played close games earlier against Rutgers and Texas A&M, tied it on Jack Griffin's 27-yard field goal with 1:01 left in the half.
Pitt had just enough time left to drive for Dan Hutchins' 38-yard field goal on the final play of the half after Tino Sunseri, erratic with his throwing until then, found Mike Shanahan on completions of 28 and 18 yards. Sunseri finished 15 of 23 for 169 yards and no interceptions.
Wes Carroll was 23 of 38 for 233 yards for the Golden Panthers, a Sun Belt Conference team that is 3-13 the last two seasons.