They survived a fourth-quarter letdown in a 35-29 victory over Maine a week ago, but when they lost the momentum against Iowa on Saturday, they lost the game. Iowa rallied from a 27-10 deficit early in the fourth quarter to win 31-27 - the biggest comeback in Hawkeyes' history.
''We're just not mature right now to be able to close it out like we needed to,'' said Todd Graham, Pittsburgh's first-year coach. ''I'm hurting for them, hurting for those seniors. That one hurt a bunch. Close games are won or lost on leadership, and it's my responsibility to do a better job coaching down the stretch so we can win those games like that.''
The Panthers dominated the first three quarters and appeared to be headed toward a satisfying road victory. Instead, Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg got in a rhythm and the Panthers lost their aggressiveness.
''All of a sudden we started backing up, loosening up,'' Graham said. ''We stopped being able to get pressure on the quarterback and they got us back on our heels. I'd say right around the first score in the first quarter, when they cut it to (a 10-point deficit) was when I felt like we were struggling and guys were fatigued a little bit.''
The Panthers had a chance to go up 31-10 when they had the ball third-and-goal at the Iowa 3. But quarterback Tino Sunseri fumbled the snap, fell on the ball for a 4-yard loss and the Panthers had to settle for a field goal, which still gave them a 17-point edge.
''I was confident in the play,'' Sunseri said. ''I just took my eye off the ball because I had my mind made up where I was going and I wanted to get it there as fast as I could. You've got to make sure you secure the snap and make sure you get that done first.''
Vandenberg threw for three touchdowns and 399 yards - including 162 in the fourth quarter - and he completed the Hawkeyes' rally with a 22-yard TD pass to Kevonte Martin-Manley with 2:51 left.
Vandenberg threw TD strikes of 14 yards to Keenan Davis and 25 yards to Martin-Manley to bring the Hawkeyes within three, then found a leaping Martin-Manley for the go-ahead score.
Iowa's Micah Hyde picked off Sunseri with 1:41 left to cap a wild win for the Hawkeyes (2-1), who narrowly avoided their worst start in 11 years.
Sunseri had 255 yards passing for the Panthers (2-1), who looked to have locked up a key road win more than once before they were torched by a resurgent Vandenberg.
The Panthers led 24-3 on Sunseri's 4-yard TD pass to Drew Carswell with 3:11 left in the third quarter. Vandenberg moved the Hawkeyes 60 yards in under two minutes and scored on a 1-yard plunge to make it 24-10 - but Pitt answered with a long drive capped by Kevin Harper's 24-yard field goal with 12:09 to go, putting Iowa three scores behind again.
Given how stagnant Iowa's offense had looked to that point, the Hawkeyes didn't seem to have enough left to make it close, let alone escape with a much-needed win.
But Vandenberg cut Pitt's lead to 27-17 with 9:55 left, finding Davis for a 14-yard score. The Panthers moved to Iowa's 36-yard line but were stopped on fourth down, leaving the door open for Vandenberg to lead the Hawkeyes right back down the field.
Iowa caught a break when Pittsburgh's Buddy Jackson was called for pass interference on a key third down. Two plays later, Vandenberg hit Martin-Manley from 25 yards out to make it 27-24 with 6:19 left.
The Hawkeyes forced another quick punt, and Vandenberg drove the Hawkeyes 64 yards in just 1:31 before capping the comeback with a 22-yard TD toss to Martin-Manley.
For most of the afternoon, it looked as Pitt had little to worry about.
The Panthers opened the second half up 10-3, and used some trickery to extend the lead.
Pitt made it 24-3 just three minutes later, and some Iowa fans headed for the exits certain that the Hawkeyes would be 1-2 for the first time since 2000.
The ones who stayed rushed the field at the final whistle, as the Hawkeyes bounced back from a 44-41 triple-overtime loss at Iowa State in a manner few thought possible.
Devin Street had seven catches for 138 yards and Ray Graham rushed for 97 yards for the Panthers.