In a flash, any lingering concerns the Pitt running back had about his surgically repaired right knee vanished. Graham's dazzling sprint through a sea of Owls set up his third touchdown in a dominant 47-17 victory on Saturday that gave the Panthers a welcome confidence boost.
"That was the old Ray Graham," Pitt wide receiver Devin Street said. "I came back to him and said, 'You're back baby.' It's great to see him play like that. We feed off of that."
Graham finished with 180 yards of total offense—109 rushing and 71 receiving—as the Panthers (4-4, 1-3) finally broke through after starting their last season in the Big East with three straight losses.
Pitt did it behind Graham. A year removed from a torn ACL that cut short his junior season, Graham gashed the Owls (3-4, 2-2) for two rushing touchdowns and added 4-yard scoring grab just before the end of the first half that gave Pitt a commanding 31-7 lead.
Though he's been a vital part of the offense all season, Graham admits he's still working his way back into shape. He ditched a knee brace three weeks ago and the protective sleeve he currently wears could soon follow.
"I definitely feel real good," said Graham, who moved into fifth on Pitt's all-time rushing list after the ninth 100-yard game of his career. "I just feel different. (The knee) felt a lot better and from here on out that's what I think you're going to see."
Quarterback Tino Sunseri passed for 321 yards and three touchdowns for Pitt while the defense kept Temple under wraps until things were well in hand.
Montel Harris ran for 72 yards and a touchdown for the Owls, but Temple simply couldn't keep pace during an opening half in which the Panthers did whatever they wanted.
"We came in here and didn't play very well today, highlighted by not playing very well at all in the first half," Temple coach Steve Addazio said.
The Owls have been competitive in their return to the Big East after seven years in college football's hinterlands but fumbled twice in their own territory and were stuffed on a fourth-and-goal early in the fourth quarter while trying to mount a late rally.
"I think they just played better than we did," Temple wide receiver Jalen Fitzpatrick said.
First-year Pitt coach Paul Chryst urged his players to attack the Owls with a sense of urgency following a lethargic victory against Buffalo last week, and the Panthers responded with perhaps their most dominant performance of the season.
Temple did its best to help.
The Owls stuffed Pitt on the game's opening possession, but Temple gave it right back when the ensuing punt glanced off Anthony Robey and Pitt's Eric Williams fell on it at the Temple 39.
Seven plays later, the Panthers were in front when Rushel Shell bulled over from a yard out, and Pitt was just getting started. Sunseri capped a 90-yard drive the next time the Panthers had the ball with an 18-yard strike to J.P. Holtz. Graham accounted for 50 yards on the march, including a 33-yard screen pass that put the Owls on their heels.
Temple pulled within 14-7 on Chris Coyer's 9-yard touchdown pass to Cody Booth, but it was merely a speed bump for Pitt, which showcased just how far it has come under Chryst.
The Panthers started the season with losses to FCS member Youngstown State and Cincinnati, looking a bit lost while making the transition to their fourth coach in less than three years.
Six weeks later, the Panthers are humming. That crispness was never more evident than in the second quarter, when the Panthers scored 17 points to grab control.
Graham walked in from 1 yard out to put Pitt up 24-7 with 2:32 to go in the half and the Panthers forced Temple to punt, getting the ball back at the Pitt 38 with 1:09 to go before the break.
The two-minute offense had been a major issue for the Panthers earlier in the season. Not on Saturday. Sunseri guided Pitt 62 yards in six plays. He hit Street for a key 35-yard gain, then found Graham in the flat for a 4-yard touchdown pass that put the Panthers in charge 31-7.
"Coach trusted us," Graham said. "When we know he has trust in us, we don't want to disappoint him."
The score capped a nightmarish 60 minutes of football for the Owls, who had been a pleasant surprise in their return to the Big East after getting kicked out nearly a decade ago.
Temple actually led unbeaten Rutgers 10-0 at the half last week before getting blown out 35-10. Addazio blamed it on the roller coaster that comes with having a young team.
The ride took another significant dip against the Panthers.
Though the Owls steadied themselves in the second half, they never got closer than 17 while Pitt resurrected its hopes of making a bowl game for the fifth straight season.
"We're really growing, really maturing," Sunseri said. "Each week you can see us fine-tuning the details."
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