Rebels face Pitt Saturday

Published 12:53 am Saturday, January 5, 2013

Pittsburgh may be a long way from home, but it should feel rather comfortable at the BBVA Compass Bowl.

The Panthers may feel even better since the coach that led them all season will accompany them to Birmingham.

After reports that he was a possible candidate for another job, Paul Chryst is staying with Pittsburgh and will be on the sidelines when it faces rejuvenated Mississippi for the first time Saturday.

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The Panthers (6-6) will play roughly 750 miles from campus, but they’re accustomed to Legion Field after splitting the last two BBVA Compass Bowls, losing 28-6 to SMU last season.

The team was led by interim coaches during its last two bowls, as Dave Wannstedt was fired two years ago before Todd Graham missed last season’s defeat to take over at Arizona State. This time, though, Pitt will have the coach that guided it through the season on the sidelines.

Chryst went so far as to issue a statement of committal after his name was circulated as a potential candidate for the Wisconsin opening. He played for the Badgers and was their offensive coordinator for seven years before taking the reins at Pitt after the 2011 season. Wisconsin eventually chose Utah State’s Gary Andersen for the job.

“I feel fortunate to be here and I like what we’re doing and I love doing it with the guys that we’re doing it with,” Chryst said. “That’s a pretty good feeling.”

Chryst guided the Panthers to a fifth consecutive bowl appearance, going 3-4 in their final season in the Big East before moving to the ACC. However, his optimism may stem from going 2-1 against ranked opponents, while his team nearly pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the season Nov. 3.

Pittsburgh fell 29-26 in triple-overtime at then-No. 4 Notre Dame after squandering a 20-6 lead to start the fourth quarter.

Ray Graham rushed for a season-high 172 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries in that loss. The senior ran for 399 yards with five of his team-leading 13 touchdowns in those three games against Top 25 foes.

Graham was fourth in the conference with 1,042 yards while averaging 4.7 per carry. He’s also a threat out of the backfield, connecting with quarterback Tino Sunseri on 36 completions for 340 yards.

Sunseri, also a senior, proved to be very efficient by ranking second in the Big East with a 154.9 rating. He completed 66.5 percent of his passes for 3,103 yards with 19 TDs and two interceptions, and he’s gone nine games without a pick since throwing one in a 35-17 win over then-No. 13 Virginia Tech on Sept. 15. That was Pitt’s first victory of the season after losses to Youngstown State and Cincinnati. The Panthers went on to become bowl eligible with a 27-3 victory at South Florida in the regular-season finale Dec. 1, when Graham raced for two scores.

Graham may be in for another strong performance on the ground against the Rebels (6-6), who allow an average of 133.3 rushing yards.

Ole Miss, however, yielded 30 yards on 25 carries in a 41-24 victory over then-No. 25 Mississippi State on Nov. 24, claiming its first Egg Bowl in four years.

“We’ve been given a great opportunity to play a quality program like Ole Miss,” Chryst said. “I know they finished the season strong and looked impressive in winning the Egg Bowl against Mississippi State.”

While Chryst is staying put, first-year coach Hugh Freeze signed an extension that should keep him at Mississippi until 2016.

He seems to have Ole Miss on the road back after it went 2-10 last year and lost all eight games in SEC play. The team was 3-5 within the conference under Freeze, who feels returning to the postseason is a major boost.

“I think it accelerates our journey, our process,” he said. “Not just the extra practices, but the extra media coverage … we’re one of the teams still playing.”

The running game has surely helped, averaging 169.7 yards with 23 touchdowns.

Jeff Scott has rushed for a career-high 828 yards while reaching the end zone seven times. He carried the load against the Bulldogs, rushing 28 times for 111 yards.

Quarterback Bo Wallace, who led the Rebels with eight rushing scores, threw five TDs with two INTs against Mississippi State.

Wallace passed for 19 scores with 15 interceptions while completing 63.4 percent of his passes for 2,843 yards.

Freeze may opt for a run-heavy approach versus Pitt, which yields an average of 196.8 passing yards with 13 interceptions compared to 12 touchdowns.

The Rebels are 21-12 in bowl games.