Louisville took the opening drive and challenged the Panthers from the start. Though Pitt was cautious of Bilal Powell, he carried just twice on the opening drive for a total of 1 yard. Louisville ran the Wildcat on one play with Dominique Brown, and the other nine plays were all passes. Adam Froman threw short screen passes to set up the underneath route--which Pitt had a hard time defending at Utah. The Cardinals had some early success in the short passing game, and the Panthers had to adjust.
"We went to a lot of base (coverage)," cornerback Antwuan Reed said. "We just had to tackle a lot more; tackle better, that's all."
Receiver Doug Beaumont caught six passes for 42 yards on the opening drive. Dom DeCicco made six tackles on the opening drive. After Ricky Gary held Beaumont to no gain on a screen pass at the 18 yard-line, Greg Williams deflected Froman's third down pass. The Cardinals settled for a 35-yard field goal, but not after taking 6:13 off the clock to start the game, on 12 plays.
"The first drives against us have been our kryptonite," safety Dom DeCicco said. "It seems like that's the one we let up every time. Today, it was only three points but we need to get to a point where we can't be giving a team any points on that opening drive."
Pitt answered with a 12-play drive of its own, that took 6:07 off the clock. Instead of a heavy dose of short passes like Louisville used on its opening drive, the Panthers used Dion Lewis as their go-to guy. Of the 12 plays, Lewis carried seven times for 34 yards. Lewis picked up where he left off last week, running downhill against the Cardinals defense. He hit the hole, didn't try to make too many moves and was tough to bring down once he got going. Pitt couldn't get anything going in the pass game. Tino Sunseri's first pass was too low for Mike Shanahan to grab. His second pass was tipped by defensive end Rodney Gnat, who came on a pass rush. His third pass was a desperation shovel pass to Jon Baldwin, that only gained a yard, on 3rd-and-7 at the Louisville 10. Pitt settled for a 26-yard Dan Hutchins field goal, to tie the score at 3-3 with just under three minutes left in the opening quarter.
Louisville commited their second special teams penalty of the game. Their first penalty was an offsides call on the kickoff, following their opening drive. That one resulted in a re-kick. This time, it was an illegal block on tight end Cameron Graham. The Cardinals took over on their own 10. Powell ran twice to get the Cardinals a first down. Louisville went to the pass, but this time around, Pitt's defensive line got some more pressure. With Chas Alecxih rushing Froman on the first pass play of the drive, he forced Froman to get rid of the ball sooner, forcing an incompletion. Froman found his tight end Graham and receiver Beaumont for short gains, but this time the Panthers held, forcing a punt.
"When you look at the statistics coming into the game, Louisville was very comparable to the numbers we had," Pitt head coach Dave Wannstedt said. "I felt like this would be a game that really stressed us as much as any in the past few weeks."
Pitt ended the first quarter, as Sunseri faked the handoff for Ray Graham--now in on his second play of the game, and hitting Henry Hynoski on the rollout--a play that has worked several times for the Panthers this year. When play resumed in the second quarter, the Panthers marched on for another 12-play drive, that ate up five and a half minutes. Time of possession and ball control were favoring Pitt to this point of the game, as they had run 24 plays, and had the ball for 12 of the game's 20 minutes. Pitt's second drive of the game resulted in a Dan Hutchins 42-yard field goal--a career-long for him.
Penalties got to both teams on that second Pitt drive, as Chris Jacobson committed a false start penalty at the Louisville 39. Pitt went for it twice on fourth down--converting the first on a short run by Graham. When Pitt went for it on 4th-and-7 at the Louisville 37, Sunseri overthrew Shanahan. However, Louisivlle cornerback Bobby Burns pushed Shanahan too early on the play, resulting in a 14-yard pass interference call against the Cardinals. Pitt had a 1st-and-10 at the Louisville 22, but could not punch it in. After a botched center exchanged on second down, Pitt had a 3rd-and-12 at the Louisville 24. Louisville defensive end William Savoy came through on a rush, forcing Sunseri to get rid of the ball early, which ultimately forced Pitt to its second field goal of the game, a 42-yarder from Hutchins this time. Though Sunseri was 3-of-5 on the drive, the passing game was having trouble getting in a rhythm.
Powell quickly got established on Louisville's third series, despite a third penalty on Louisville's special teams. Taking over at his own eight yard-line, Powell gained 21 yards on the first play, and didn't even make contact with a Pitt defender until he was tackled. Powell ran the first three plays of the drive--including a five-yard gain off a read option. Strangely, after getting Louisville some early momentum, and digging them out from deep in their own territory, the Cardinals went back to the pass. Froman completed just one pass--a four-yarder to Powell--then had his third down pass fall short of tight end Graham. Froman was lacking that consistency he had on the opening drive.
Pitt answered with its third and final series of the first half--another 12-play drive. This time, Hutchins attempted a 28-yard field goal that was wide left. Dion Lewis was back on the field, carrying four times for 14 yards. Sunseri got in a groove this drive, but the Louisville pass rush was still giving him a hard time. After Rodney Gnat came through with a hurry on second down, Pitt was facing a 3rd-and-8 at its own 22. Sunseri fired a pass over the middle to tight end Mike Cruz, for a gain of 14, converting the first down. Sunseri later hit Lewis with a short pass to gain 11, and a perfect playaction pass to Mike Shanahan that drew the Louisville defense in, and gave the Panthers a 22-yard gain.
Pitt made it to the red zone, at the Louisville 14. After a three-yard gain by Lewis, Pitt could not punch the ball in for a touchdown. Sunseri attempted a screen pass with Lewis and Street in the vicinity. Street ran into Lewis on the play--almost acting like a defensive back, deflecting the pass away. Sunseri looked for Shanahan in the end zone, but he couldn't haul it in. Hutchins attempted a 28-yard field goal that was wide left.
The most disappointing thing for Pitt was 36 plays in the first half---three 12-play drives which accumulated nearly 17 minutes--and all they had to show for it was six points.
Louisville ran just three plays, taking over at its own 20. Powell got the drive started again with a big run, gaining 14 yards on the first play. After another Froman pass fell short, Jabaal Sheard sacked Froman for the first time on the day, forcing a fumble in the process. A Louisville lineman fell on the loose ball, and both teams took it in to the locker room, with Pitt ahead 6-3.
"At halftime, we wanted to make sure we put some more points on the board, and take some pressure off of the defense," quarterback Tino Sunseri said.
Pitt opened the half with another double-digit play drive--11 plays this time--which finally resulted in a touchdown. Pitt still had some problems in the passing game such as the opening play where Sunseri aimed for Shanahan on the opening play of the series, with Shanahan 10 yards downfield from where the pass was intended. It looked like a miscommunication. Sunseri later went deep for Baldwin who was in double coverage. The ball was knocked away by cornerback Patrick at the last minute. Sunseri did come through with a big run on this drive--evading a would-be sack, and turning it in to a 13-yard gain. For the game, Sunseri rushed four times for 23 yards, and was not sacked. The next time on third down, Sunseri found Mike Cruz for a gain of 14, which set Pitt up at the 27. Ray Graham scored two plays later on a 21-yard touchdown, giving the Panthers some breathing room, but more importantly, giving the Panthers' offense some much needed confidence.
Cruz finished the game with two receptions for 28 yards. Both of his catches converted third downs into first downs.
"Coach (Wannstedt), his motto really has been, ‘Players have to make plays,'" Cruz said. "It's not about the individual stats and individual goals, it's just about the team. It's about running your routes at full speed, correct splits. I want to thank the line and give them credit, and giving Tino time to convert the third downs."
Pitt's scoring drive lasted over five and a half minutes, as Louisville got its first chance with the ball, with less than 10 minutes to play in the third quarter. Down 13-3, Louisville's next drive was a wasted effort. Before taking over, the Cardinals committed its third consecutive penalty on a kickoff return--its fourth penalty on a special teams play for the day. The first time they committed one, they started at their own 10. The last time, they took over at the 8. This time, after another illegal block, they started at their own 4.
"In the kicking game, the penalties caught up with us which put our offensive in bad field position," Louisville head coach Charlie Strong said. "We weren't able to come out and make and plays on offense."
They did, however, make this drive last. The Cardinals traveled 57 yards in 16 plays in 8:39, getting all the way to the Pitt 39. It was the turning point in the game in the sense that Louisville took all that time, still could have taken more time off the clock in an effort to score and get back in the game. Instead, Sheard sacked Froman, stripping the ball away again. Though Sheard made the play, it was a coverage sack.
"The (sack) I saw, where it seemed (Froman) wanted to pass, he wanted to pass, and then Jabaal came in and sacked him," DeCicco said. "Jabaal comes up with sacks and forces interceptions (for the secondary), but maybe the (secondary) helped him out on that one.
This time, Myles Caragein scooped the ball up, and returned it 56 yards to the Louisville five yard-line. An entire sustainable drive wasted on turnover, that set Pitt up deep in Louisville territory. Dion Lewis punched it in three plays later; a one-yard touchdown run, to put Pitt up 20-3, just three seconds in to the final quarter.
"I definitely was (thinking touchdown on the recovery)," Caragein said. "I was just happy the team was in position to score. I was just rushing. I saw Jabaal come in and knock the ball out. Fortunately, it bounced back up in my hands. I was thinking, ‘Don't fumble,' and kept running."
While Louisville didn't commit a penalty on a kick return for the first time since the opening drive, Pitt did. Jeremy Wright returned the kickoff 53 yards to the Pitt 36. Even though Wright gave Buddy Jackson a good forearm on his way out of bounds, Jackson was flagged for the personal foul; late hit out of bounds. Pitt wasn't done yet. After Wright gained a yard on the first play, getting the Cardinals in the red zone, Jason Hendricks was called for defensive holding, setting up Louisville with a 1st-and-Goal at the Pitt 10. With nearly a full quarter of play remaining, there was plenty of time for Louisville to mount 17 points together.
After Wright carried two times--gaining three yards each time--Louisville faced a 3rd-and-Goal at the Pitt 4, their best field position of the day. Left tackle Byron Stingily was called for a false start, then was beat by defensive end Brandon Lindsey, who sacked Froman for his ninth sack of the year. Louisville entered the game allowing a total of seven sacks on the season. Pitt came up with three sacks for the game, maintaining their season average.
"Just play hard and keeping them in the pocket," defensive end Jabaal Sheard said. "Obviously, watching the quarterback, he's a great scrambler. We knew they only had seven sacks. We have a great defensive line. Our whole front plays good. It was an opportunity for us. We just played hard."
Despite the Louisville mistakes, the Cardinals had a chance to make it a two-score game, as Chris Philpott missed a 30-yard field goal with 11:41 left in the game.
In the first half, Pitt had three possessions, while Louisville had four. During the final 11:41 of the game, Louisville also had four possessions. After the missed field goal, Pitt went three-and-out, which resulted in a 40-yard punt--Dan Hutchins' first punt of the game. Louisville took over at their own 41, but Froman threw three incompletions. The first two passes were overthrown for Josh Bellamy and Cameron Graham. The third pass was too high for Josh Chichester. Froman was looking rattled before the last fumble, but here, he couldn't get any of his passes within reasonable range.
"I think the pressure got to him," Sheard said. "He was a little rattled with Brandon Lindsey on the other end (Alecxih), and Myles Cargein on the other end. I'm pretty sure any quarterback would be rattled from that. Great pressure from them, and great coverage down the field."
Pitt converted a first down on its next drive--a bootleg rollout to fullback Chris Mike, who was filling in for Henry Hynoski, who left the game with a mild concussion. Mike gained 15 yards on the play, giving Pitt a 1st-and-10 at its own 38, working with under 10 minutes to play. Unfortunately, Pitt only gained seven yards on its next three plays--including two runs--which forced them to punt for a second consecutive series. Pitt was trying to grind out the clock, but wasn't having any success.
When the Louisville offense took over again, Jeremy Wright kickstarted the offense with runs of 12 and 6 to start the series. Just like they had so many times Saturday, Louisville went back to the pass after getting momentum from its run game. They failed as Froman threw an incompletion, then was sacked for the third time of the day--this time by Aaron Donald. Louisville entered the game allowing seven sacks on the season. Saturday, they gave up three to Pitt. Froman was held to just 89 yards passing for the game, the second week in a row that the Pitt defense has held a starting quarterback under 100 yards.
"That feels great as a defense, as a whole," cornerback Antwuan Reed said. "We've been working hard on defense; just getting more film and practicing harder."
Pitt tried running the clock out some more on its next series--three runs by Ray Graham which totaled six yards, but the Panthers had to punt again--its third and final punt of the game, its third in consecutive series. After minimal punts of 40 and 36, Hutchins boomed one deep into Louisville territory. Buddy Jackson made a valiant effort to tip the ball at the one, but it was still too much as it rolled into the end zone for the touchback. It was the longest punt by a Pitt player since Adam Graessle booted one 79 yards on October 16, 2004 against Boston College.
After being rattled and being ineffective as a result of the pressure created by Pitt's defensive line, Justin Burke relieved Louisville starting quarterback of his duties. On his first play, Burke was picked off by Dom DeCicco--DeCicco's third interception of the season, second in consecutive games and 10th of the season.
Pitt brought out its second-team offense, who ran the clock down to 1:02, which helped close the game out.