PITTSBURGH - Mike Shanahan saw yards and yards of empty space in front of him and the end zone somewhere in the distance.
The Pittsburgh wide receiver isn't used to chugging 77 yards. Then again, the Panthers are doing a lot of things they aren't used to these days, scoring points being chief among them.
Shanahan - thanks to a crushing block from teammate Devin Street - tiptoed down the sideline for his second touchdown reception of the day as quickly improving Pitt crushed overmatched Gardner-Webb 55-10 on Saturday.
"I was kind of actually tired going into that play a little bit, but once Devin threw that block I knew I had to score," Shanahan said.
If only to keep pace with an offense that is starting to get the hang of things under first-year head coach Paul Chryst. Shanahan finished with five receptions for a career-high 144 yards and two scores as Pitt (2-2) capped an eventful month with the kind of convincing victory expected against a 44-point underdog.
The Panthers rolled up 626 yards - their highest total in 15 years - and kept their momentum going after a surprising upset over then 13th-ranked Virginia Tech last week.
Suddenly, the team that opened the season with losses Youngstown State and Cincinnati looks like a legitimate contender heading into the teeth of the Big East schedule.
"I think we're believing in it more," said Street, who finished five catches for 95 yards and one score. "With those first two games, it was tough. We were down. I think we have a lot of confidence right now, but we still have room to improve."
Tino Sunseri passed for 344 yards and three scores for Pitt, which avoided a letdown after the breakthrough victory against the Hokies.
"We did some things that we can build on and things we can get better at," Chryst said.
The Panthers paid Gardner-Webb $470,000 to make the 500-mile trip north from Boiling Springs, N.C. as a schedule filler after West Virginia and TCU opted to play in the Big 12 instead of the Big East this season.
The Runnin' Bulldogs (0-4) were friendlier to their hosts than Youngstown State, the last FCS school to visit Heinz Field. Pitt was stunned by the Penguins 31-17 in the season-opener three weeks ago, the program's first ever loss to a lower division school.
Gardner-Webb didn't come close to repeating the feat, though the Runnin' Bulldogs made Pitt work for it, moving the ball on each of their first two drives. Gardner-Webb actually had a chance to take an early lead but Trever Austin's 40-yard field goal attempt sailed wide right.
One play later the Panthers were in front. Ray Graham took a handoff from Sunseri, stutter-stepped at the line of scrimmage then sprinted 78 yards for a score.
"That was a big play and it seemed to get us going a little bit," Chryst said.
A lengthy kickoff return by J.J. Hubbard put Runnin' Bulldogs in scoring position, and Austin hit a 41 yard field goal to make it 7-3.
That would be about it for the competitive portion of the night.
The Panthers ripped off the next 17 points, including a 1-yard touchdown plunge by freshman running back Rushel Shell and a pretty 34-yard strike from Sunseri to Street.
Pitt's only slipup came on a rare miscue by Graham, who fumbled while getting tackled late in the second quarter. Gardner-Webb's Kamar Morrison, a senior cornerback, scooped up the loose ball and raced down the sideline for the score to make it 24-10.
"In the beginning, I thought we moved the ball well and started off the way we envisioned the way we could move it," said Gardner-Webb quarterback Lucas Beatty. "But then we had a couple mistakes that set us back a little later in the game, and then things started to go the other way."
The Panthers tacked on a short field goal by Kevin Harper on the final play of the first half to make it 27-10 at the break then poured it on in the third quarter. Sunseri hit Shanahan for a 4-yard score on Pitt's first possession of the second half and the two hooked up again later in the quarter on the 77-yard score that was nearly all run after a short catch across the middle.
Shanahan looked winded - if elated - as he crossed the goal line. He wasn't the only one. Street wondered if his 6-foot-5, 225-pound teammate was going to make it to the end zone too.
"Shanny can move a little bit, but I don't know how well," Street said with a laugh. "Shanny gets tired. He's a big boy out there."