PITTSBURGH -- For two quarters, it looked like the Pittsburgh Panthers' dream season had abruptly turned into a nightmare.
A week removed from a loss to the rival West Virginia Mountaineers, the Panthers found themselves trailing to the Syracuse Orange, 13-3, at halftime and missing their starting QB Tino Sunseri, lost to bruised ribs for the second straight game.
But the Panthers finally woke up in the second half, with Mike Myers efficiently leading the offense and Ray Graham returning to his Heisman form with three second half touchdowns as the Panthers scored 31 unanswered points for a 34-13 senior day victory that sealed the Big East crown and a BCS bowl bid.
"We didn't want to send our seniors out in the way we played the first half," Panthers head coach Todd Graham said. "The guys responded fantastically, and Mike did a good job directing the offense like we needed him too."
Sunseri left the game in the second quarter with the injury, and was replaced by Trey Anderson, who had replaced him in every other situation this season. After more struggles (going 0 for 4 in two series), Myers replaced Anderson to start the second half.
After a couple slow drives in which he got his feet under him, Myers finished 10-for-15 for 110 yards. He also added a rushing touchdown on a 1 yard scramble in the fourth quarter.
"To be thrown into the fire like that with the team behind, it was a lot of pressure," Myers said. "But I think I handled it well and the guys around me played great to let me ease in there."
Sunseri still made his mark on the game, with a fumble in the second quarter leading to a Syracuse touchdown, as it was recovered and returned 44 yards to paydirt.
That was the only touchdown in the opening half, with Syracuse knocking through a pair of chip shot field goals, while Kevin Harper hit a 46 yarder for the Panthers.
Harper continued his stellar season with a 54 yarder early in the third quarter, and Graham tied the game with 1:30 to play in the third stanza on a three yard touchdown scamper.
The Panthers' defense stifled Syracuse repeatedly, allowing the offense plenty of chances to take the lead. They scored touchdowns on all three possessions in the fourth quarter, while holding Syracuse scoreless through the second half.
Graham scored from six yards out as the Panthers took their first lead midway through the quarter.
A 40 yard heave to Devin Street put the Panthers at essentially the one inch line, and Myers snuck through the line for the touchdown. Graham added his final touchdown from two yards out to close out the game.
Graham finished with 130 yards on 32 carries, finishing the regular season with 2005 total yards (1541 rushing) and 21 total touchdowns.
"Ray's been the ultimate package," Graham said. "We could lean on him in the biggest situations, and he came through. Today, he really stepped up when we gave him the ball in the fourth quarter."
One variation for the Panther defense today was their vulnerability against the run, giving up 142 yards on the ground while just 151 through the air. Antwon Bailey finished with 121 yards before leaving with an injury.
"A win is a win," Graham said. "We've shored up our pass defense significantly, and we had the best run defense in the country coming into today, so we're not too worried."
The Panthers will have a month off before their bowl in the new year, which is projected to be the Sugar Bowl against #4 Alabama (11-1), whose single loss came to #1 LSU (12-0).
"They're a great team," Graham said. "We're obviously looking forward to any BCS matchup that they put us in, it'll be a great test."
Notes - Syracuse actually outgained the Panthers, 293-270... The Panthers continued with the nation's worst conversion percentage, going just 3 for 14 (21%) on third downs... The Panthers scored touchdowns on all four of their redzone possessions, while Syracuse managed just two field goals.