The score was nearly identical to the season opener. The result was decidedly different. For Pitt, the only thing that mattered was that it came out on the winning end against a Mid-American Conference opponent.
The Panthers took advantage of three personal-foul penalties and rediscovered its rhythm on offense in beating Buffalo, 27-16, Saturday night before an announced crowd of 42,494 at Heinz Field.
It was a much-needed victory for Pitt (1-1) and coach Dave Wannstedt, who had come under fire for his ultra-conservative approach in a 27-17 loss to Bowling Green in the season opener.
The Panthers had lost 13 of their past 18 games.
LeSean McCoy tied a career-high with three touchdown runs, scoring from 3, 1 and 2 yards. The sophomore tailback finished with 117 all-purpose yards, rushing for 93 yards on 20 carries and catching one pass for 24 yards.
Pitt relied mostly on the precision passing of quarterback Bill Stull, who completed 22 of 33 for 241 yards and an interception on the final play of the first half. Stull completed six consecutive at one point in the first half and 11 consecutive to start the second half, and hit Oderick Turner on a 36-yarder that helped set up Conor Lee’s 42-yard field goal to seal it with 3:31 left.
Pitt outgained Buffalo, 352-348.
Stull, a redshirt junior, completed 6 of 6 attempts for 55 yards – including a 5-yarder on a third down to tight end Nate Byham at the Buffalo 6 – on the drive that gave the Panthers the lead for good. It set up McCoy’s 1-yard scoring run for a 17-9 lead at 10:05 of the third quarter.
Buffalo (1-1) answered with a seven-play, 74-yard scoring drive capped by Drew Willy’s 39-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Brett Hamlin on a blown coverage that cut it to 17-16 with 6:41 remaining in the third. Surprisingly enough, the Bulls didn’t try for a two-point conversion to tie.
Willy, however, couldn’t rally the Bulls in the fourth quarter. When Pitt senior safety Eric Thatcher picked off Willy’s pass at the Pitt 36 with 1:26 left, it not only sealed the game but snapped Willy’s NCAA-best streak of 248 attempts without throwing an interception.
The Bulls also got a game-high 97 rushing yards on 20 carries from junior tailback James Starks.
Pitt held a 10-9 halftime lead, despite being outgained by Buffalo, 205-155, in total yards. The Panthers accounted for only 16 yards in the first quarter.
Pitt got a break when Buffalo safety Mike Newton drew a personal foul for a late hit on McCoy after an incomplete pass on third-and-6 at the Pitt 37.
The Panthers then used 15-yard completions to Derek Kinder and Nate Byham to set up McCoy’s 3-yard touchdown run for a 7-6 lead with 13:30 left in the first half.
On its next possession, Pitt drove 69 yards in 14 plays before settling for a Lee 21-yard field goal and 10-6 lead with 2:42 left in the half.
The Bulls answered with a 62-yard drive that ended with A.J. Principe’s 35-yard field goal with 32 seconds left in the half. Tommie Duhart, who started in place of Mick Williams, blocked A.J. Principe’s 44-yard field-goal attempt with 11:01 remaining in the first quarter. Buffalo later drove 73 yards on 15 plays, scoring on a 1-yard run by Brandon Thermilus for a 6-0 lead with 1:59 remaining in the first quarter.