PITTSBURGH -- Utah's defense turned Pittsburgh's "high octane" offense into a clunker.
The Utes bottled up Panther star running back Ray Graham, forced three turnovers and rolled up six sacks in a 26-14 victory at blustery Heinz Field on Saturday. It was a win that made up for in dominance what it lacked in aesthetics.
"We had a game plan and believed in it," said defensive end Derrick Shelby, who returned an interception 21 yards for a touchdown with 1:12 to go to seal it. "We knew we had to tackle Ray Graham and it looks like we did that."
Actually, the Utes (3-3), tackled everything.
Pitt (3-4) managed 120 yards of total offense as Graham was held to a season-low 46 yards and the passing game could never get on track as quarterbacks Tino Sunseri and Trey Anderson spent most of the day trying to get away from Utah's relentless front seven.
"It was embarrassing," Pitt coach Todd Graham said. "We didn't execute anything in the passing game at all."
Utah didn't give Sunseri or Anderson much of a chance. The duo combined to complete 9 of 30 passes for 50 yards. Pitt's longest completion went for all of 19 yards and only two of the completions went to a wide receiver. The "high octane" attack Todd Graham promised when he took over in January has scored all of one offensive touchdown in two weeks.
"Everyone was in the right spots and made the right plays," Utah safety Brian Blechen said.
The Utes weren't exactly overpowering offensively and struggled in the kicking game. Pitt returned a kickoff and a blocked punt for touchdowns in the first quarter, but Utah had enough time to snap a two-game losing streak by holding onto the ball and riding the legs of running back John White and kicker Coleman Petersen.
White rushed for 171 yards on 36 clock-chewing carries while Petersen drilled four field goals in swirling winds. Holding onto the ball helped too. The Utes turned it over a combined 10 times in home losses to Washington and Arizona State. They didn't give it away once against the Panthers.
"We did take care of the football, which was what we talked about ad nauseam the last few weeks and that has been our downfall, so we did get that corrected," coach Kyle Whittingham said.
Still,a cross-country trip, an early kickoff and a pair of special teams gaffes that put Utah in an early 14-3 hole appeared to have the Utes reeling.
Instead, they rallied. White kept churning through the Pitt defense to take some pressure off quarterback John Hays and Petersen -- who made four field goals all season -- matched that total, including a 45-yarder that put Utah up 19-14 in the fourth quarter and allowed the Utes' defense to go on full attack.
"The mentality of this team is to keep fighting, to scrap and claw for every point we get or we don't get. We were down in the beginning but we knew we had to keep going."
The Utes improved to 9-0 all-time against current members of the Big East -- including 3-0 against Pitt -- despite playing without leading receiver leading receiver DeVonte Christopher and quarterback Jordan Wynn, both out with injuries.
Hays completed 14 of 23 passes 127 yards and a score without throwing an interception, though he wasn't helped out by a line that allowed him to get sacked seven times.
"We had some rhythm problems," Hays said.
Just not as many as Pitt.
Though the Utes had trouble finishing drives, Petersen found a way to deal with the swirling winds that ruffled officials' pants and made throwing the ball downfield with accuracy nearly impossible.
"He had ice water in his veins today," Whittingham said of Petersen. "He had a couple of disappointing kicks early in the season ... he got his opportunities today and he made the most of them."
So did Utah's defense against a shuffled offensive line that came in allowing 28 sacks on the season, easily the highest in the country. Todd Graham moved Matt Rotheram to right tackle and Jordan Gibbs to center in hopes of shoring up the leaks.
Instead, the dam burst and this time the team's star running back couldn't save the day.
Graham came in averaging 149.9 yards through the first half of the season, the best six-game start in school history. He never found any room against a defense that sent two and three players his direction on every play.
"We have some big guys in there," Whittingham said.
And they played big when they had to.
Despite the offense's inability to get anything going, the Panthers still had a chance late in the fourth quarter. Pitt drove to the Utah 35 but Anderson threw incomplete to Hubie Graham on fourth down.
Pitt got the ball four plays later, but Shelby tipped Anderson's attempted screen pass to Ray Graham then rumbled into the end zone, though he did receive a personal foul penalty for tumbling across the goal line.
It was the final flag on a day when the teams combined for 18 penalties for 172 yards.
"We did some dumb things," Whittingham said.
So did the Panthers, who couldn't take advantage of a pair of spectacular special teams plays. Pitt's Buddy Jackson returned a kickoff 98 yards for a score and Andrew Taglianetti blocked a Utah punt moments later, with Antwuan Reed strolling 10 yards into the end zone for the score.
It was all the points Pitt would muster on a forgettable day.