Pitt falls to Ole Miss 38-17 in BBVA Compass Bowl
Paul Chryst said his game plan didn't change without leading rusher Ray Graham.
Graham's hamstring injury just made it much more difficult for Pittsburgh to execute that plan.
A rare early interception by Tino Sunseri set up the first of three touchdown passes by Mississippi's Bo Wallace and the Rebels beat Pitt 38-17 in the BBVA Compass Bowl on Saturday.
Graham, who had 1,042 yards rushing, suffered the hamstring injury in bowl practice. The injury was disclosed before the game.
The Panthers averaged only 2.2 yards per carry without Graham. Rushel Shell had 25 carries for 79 yards.
"Obviously, it was a tough one for us," Chryst said after completing his first season. "Give Ole Miss credit. They beat us in almost every phase. They were clearly the better team today."
Pitt (6-7) fell behind in the opening minutes after Sunseri threw his first interception since Sept. 15 and trailed the remainder of the game.
Wallace's 13-yard touchdown pass to Ja-Mess Logan gave the Rebels the 7-0 lead. Wallace added first-half touchdown passes to Randall Mackey, for 27 yards, and Vince Sanders, for 18 yards.
Sunseri completed 16 of 32 passes for 185 yards with two touchdowns and one interception.
Ole Miss led 24-10 at halftime and put the game away with the first two touchdowns of the second half.
Ole Miss (7-6) took a five-win improvement with first-year coach Hugh Freeze over its 2-10 finish in 2011.
"I've tried to learn not to make too much out of a single game either way, but no question this advances our journey a bit," Freeze said.
"To be where we're sitting here year one far surpasses certainly the prognosticators and whatever they had for us. Our guys really chose to buy in and determine we could be who we want to be. We don't have to have someone else determine that."
Wallace, chosen the game's MVP, completed 22 of 32 passes for 151 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions.
Freeze's no-huddle, up-tempo offense produced 38 first downs and 387 yards. Pitt was held to 266 yards, its second-lowest total of the season.
"We just couldn't get in a rhythm, probably because of their pressure," said Pitt wide receiver Mike Shanahan, who had a 16-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter.
"We just couldn't seem to get in good field position."
Pitt stayed close early with Devin Street's 10-yard pass from Sunseri in the second quarter. That was Pitt's only touchdown until Sunseri's scoring pass to Shanahan with only 2:23 remaining.
Kevin Harper kicked a 47-yard field goal, his longest of the season, for Pitt in the second quarter.
Sunseri's streak of 271 passes without an interception, the nation's longest, ended on his second throw of the Panthers' opening drive. Senquez Golson's interception, returned 17 yards to the Pitt 23, set up Wallace's touchdown pass to Logan. It was only Sunseri's third interception of the season and his first since the team's third game against Virginia Tech.
Pitt had only one turnover in its last seven games of the regular season. It shared the nation's lead with only eight turnovers for the season.
Sunseri lost a fumble early in the second quarter for the Panthers' second turnover.
Pitt was making its third straight appearance in the bowl. The Panthers lost to SMU in last year's game.
The Panthers played their last game as a Big East team. They are moving to the Atlantic Coast Conference next season.
Ole Miss backup quarterback Barry Brunetti had a 1-yard touchdown run in the third quarter and freshman running back I'Tavius Mathers added a 62-yard scoring run midway through the fourth quarter to cap the rout.
Wallace completed his first eight passes, including two for touchdowns but his hot streak ended with two second-quarter interceptions.
Bryson Rose kicked a 31-yard field goal for Ole Miss and missed from 44 and 48 yards.
Mathers led the Rebels with 96 yards rushing on only six carries. Jaylen Walton had 10 carries for 56 yards. Freeze said a hamstring injury in the game limited Ole Miss starting running back Jeff Scott to five carries for 16 yards.
A strong turnout by Ole Miss fans within driving range of Birmingham pushed attendance to 59,135, easily a bowl record. The previous high was 42,610 for the 2010 game between South Carolina and Connecticut.