Before it began, Sal Sunseri was in front of the student section, waving a towel, jumping and screaming at everyone else to scream. When it was over, Sunseri had Coach Jackie Sherrill on his shoulders and he was still screaming.
Sunseri and his Pittsburgh teammates had every right to scream. This was their day of atonement, the day they at least partly paid back 11th-ranked Florida State for ending last year's dream of a national title, and gained revenge for the 15 seniors from the 1980 team who weren't here to enjoy the 42-14 Panther victory before 55,112 in Pitt Stadium.
"Every day after practice this week I got the guys (on defense) together and told them we owed this game to the nine guys who graduated last year," said Sunseri, a linebacker and the defensive captain. "They worked so hard to get a national title and lost it because of one game. We wanted these guys a lot."
With Sunseri, the only full-time defensive starter left from last year's No. 2-ranked 11-1 team, returning an interception for a touchdown; with quarterback Dan Marino setting three school passing records and completing 15 of 27 passes for 251 yards and three touchdowns; with Tom Flynn returning a punt 83 yards for a touchdown and with Bryan Thomas rushing for 217 yards and one touchdown, the Panthers got Florida State in almost every way possible.
By winning, the Panthers (5-0) accomplished a number of things., They probably assured a move up from No. 3 in the rankings, especially with the upset loss of top-rated Texas. They also gained revenge for last year's 36-22 loss to Florida State, their only defeat in 27 games, dating to 1979. In addition, they extended the nation's longest Division I-A winning streak to 12. And, most important, with five games coming up in which they will be heavily favored -- Syracuse, Boston College, Rutgers, Army and Temple -- Pitt all but clinched a major bowl bid because the bids go out before the showdown here Nov. 28 with Penn State.
"They are a super football team, and I think I'm in a position to make comparisons," said FSU Coach Bobby Bowden, whose 4-2 team has lost to Nebraska and Pitt and beaten Ohio State and Notre Dame the last four weeks. "The difference in the game was that they got to our quarterback and we never got to theirs."
Marino, who had been recuperating from a shoulder bruise for the last two weeks, said he never even hit the ground today. By contrast, FSU's quarterbacks, Rick Stockstill and Blair Williams, were constantly harassed, being sacked five times and avoiding several others with rushed passes that resulted in three interceptions.
"Going in I thought we had to control the game in two of the three phases," said Sherrill, who called this his biggest win in five years as Pitt head coach. "We dominated all three."
This was a contest only briefly. The key moments came late in the first quarter and early in the second.
The first came after the Seminoles had recovered a fumbled punt at the Pitt 35 and driven to a fourth down and inches just outside the one. Bowden elected to go for the first down and sent in a play for powerful fullback Michael Whiting. Even as Stockstill called the signal, Sunseri was yelling at his teammates, "It's Whiting, it's Whiting."
Whiting nevertheless appeared to gain the first down, but the officials said no gain. Three plays later, the Panthers had to punt from their two and FSU went for the block.
The strategy produced a touchdown last week; this time it produced a roughing-the-kicker penalty on Jarvis Coursey and the Panthers had a first down. Quickly, Marino completed passes of 20, 26 and 22 yards, the last to Wayne DiBartola after scrambling clear of a rush. DiBartola went into the end zone for a 7-0 lead with 27 seconds left in the first quarter.
Forty-one seconds later, it was 14-0. Rushed hard on third and 10, Stockstill tried to release over the middle to Whiting. Sunseri had the play read, though, and he dashed in, grabbed the pass at the 22 and chugged into the end zone, holding the ball up triumphantly at the eight and just avoiding Stockstill's dive.
Six minutes later, Flynn, the only other Pitt defender who started (six games) last year, made it 21-0. Fielding a punt by Rohn Stark at his 17, Flynn took one step right, then cut up the middle and was gone, outrunning the last two defenders to the goal line.
"I wanted to do something like that today," said Flynn. " . . . We were so prepared today, it was ridiculous."
After Flynn's return, Bowden replaced Stockstill with Williams, who has the stronger throwing arm. Williams led a 50-yard drive that culminated in a one-yard Whiting dive that made it 21-7 before halftime.
"Right there, I thought we were in for a tough game," Sherrill said. "Then we came out and scored too damn quick to believe."
During the first 2:33 of the third quarter, Marino twice found split end Julius Dawkins for touchdowns, first from 65 yards out, then from 18. The second score came after freshman Chris Doleman forced a Williams fumble and J.C. Pelusi recovered.
It was 35-7 with 27 1/2 minutes still to play, but the game was over.
Marino, a 6-foot-4 junior, became Pitt's all-time leading passer with 4,360 yards, surpassing last year's quarterback, Rick Trocano. He also set a school record for most career completions (321) and for most touchdown passes in one season (16).
With his performance, Thomas became the first Pitt running back to top 200 yards since Tony Dorsett gained 202 when Pitt defeated Georgia in the 1977 Sugar Bowl, winning the national championship.
"Are we better than last year?" Sherrill asked rhetorically, smiling because this started out as a rebuilding year. "I don't know about that. But we're very good, maybe as good as anyone. We'll just have to wait and see."