Pitt took out 35 days of frustration in a 27-10 win over Kentucky from the SEC. The win gives Pitt its eighth win of the season, its third consecutive season with eight wins.
If interim coach Phil Bennett exhibited anything this week, it was an aggressive nature that the players responded to in the game. He said Thursday that his game plan was to run the football. He proved Saturday that he wasn't lying, as Pitt rushed for 208 yards against the Wildcats, while averaging over five yards a carry.
He then brought up a story from an old high school game, where he said he got in a fist fight with Kentucky co-defensive coordinator Rick Minter--who has become a good friend of Bennett's over the years. Everything he said this week, and even in the postgame news conference, the Pitt players backed up on the field in one of their most aggressive performances in recent years.
"Coach Bennett gets a lot of respect from everybody on the team, and everybody responds real well," senior safety Dom DeCicco said. "It makes you want to play for him. You saw by the way we played today, that there was a hundred percent effort across the board."
Dion Lewis--in what could be his final game as a Pitt Panther, led Pitt with 105 yards on 22 carries and a touchdown, en route to Game MVP honors. Ray Graham almost topped the 100-yard mark as well, finishing with 90 yards on 17 carries. It was without question the most productive game this season with both players contributing.
DeCicco--in his last game as a Panther, led the team with nine solo tackles including two tackles for losses. K'Waun Williams--making his first career start--tied DeCicco with nine tackles. Pitt added four sacks from four different players; Justin Hargrove--who made his first start, Chas Alecxih, Aaron Donald--making his first start, and Kolby Gray.
After the game, Bennett put DeCicco in an elite class of players that he has coached throughout his career. He mentioned Terence Neuman, who he had as a corner while coaching at Kansas State. He mentioned Dat Nguyen, a linebacker whom he coached at Texas A&M. He put DeCicco's name alongside theirs.
"Every game I have ever coached is personal because you are writing your resume," Bennett added. "These players, like Dom DeCicco--I've coached 33 years. I can count five guys in 33 years that are on the same plane as he is. I can just pick guys out and this guy has been a stud. He is a guy that has given his hear and soul to the University of Pittsburgh."
Brian Angelichio's first game as an offensive coordinator for Pitt was a success. His talk earlier in the week about running the football, and taking advantage of its strengths was no lie. Pitt came out and did what Angelichio said they would do earlier in the week. Though Sunseri's passing numbers weren't game breaking, tight end Mike Cruz led the Panthers with 24 yards receiving on two receptions. Brock DeCicco caught the lone touchdown reception of the game. Henry Hynoski--possibly playing in his final game at Pitt--tied Cruz for the team-lead in two receptions.
Praising Angelichio and the other assistants was Bennett's first order of business following the game.
"I thought they handled a tough situation very well," Bennett said. "I am proud of the assistant coaches, the guys who were working a little bit short-handed. I thought in particular our offensive staff really did a fine job. We were able to control the front and run the ball, which helped us defensively."
Pitt was impressive controlling the tempo from the opening drive. With Angelichio calling the plays, Panthers upped the tempo in the way the plays were getting out to the field. It was a faster pace than had been exhibited in earlier games. The Panthers drove all the way to the Kentucky 20, on just seven plays. The drive ended as Tino Sunseri--who completed his first three passes (one to Jon Baldwin, two to Henry Hynoski), was picked off by Kentucky corner Randall Burden. The ball was under thrown, but it also didn't help that tight end Mike Cruz--who was flanked out to the left on the play--gave up on the route.
After Kentucky drove all the way to the Pitt 34 on its first series, Brandon Lindsey came up with a big play. After being unable to making the inisial stop, he was able to keep a hold on quarterback Newton, and strip the ball from him. Tristan Roberts recovered the ball on their own 34, ending Kentucky's drive and getting the ball back. Lindsey tied DeCicco for the team-lead with two tackles for losses.
Pitt dodged another bullett on its second series. Tino Sunseri hit Ray Graham with a pass on 2nd-and-7 that was bobbled by Graham. Burden--who came up with the interception on the first drive--eventually recovered the ball on the Pitt 10. Phil Bennett challenged the play. After the review, it was determined that it was indeed a pass. There was enough evidence in the review to prove that Graham was at or ahead of the line of scrimmage. Sunseri threw another incompletion on the third down play, resulting in a punt.
Kentucky got on the board with a 50-yard field goal from Craig McIntosh, a career-long for McIntosh. Aaron Donald stepped up with a couple of big plays defensively, to force McIntosh in that range, and help prevent Kentucky from marching further. After Newton converted a 4th-and-1 for Kentucky, stiff-arming Ricky Gary in the backfield in the process, Donald batted down a Newton pass at the line of scrimmage. He later came up with Pitt's first sack of the game, forcing a 3rd-and-18, which led to Kentucky having to settle for a field goal. Donald finished the game with that sack and another tackle for a loss; not bad numbers for a kid not recruited heavily out of high school against an SEC opponent.
Pitt answered with a long drive of its own, as Dan Hutchins tied the game with a 20-yard field goal. The Panthers marched 70 yards in 14 plays, with Lewis carrying the ball seven times for 35 yards; being responsible for exactly half the plays and half the yards on the drive. The score was tied at 3-3, with 11:29 left in the first quarter.
Pitt came up with a fourth down stop on the next drive, as Kentucky went for it on a 4th-and-1. Newton took off out of the pocket on a 3rd-and-19, gaining 18 yards. When the ball was spotted, it was inches from the first down marker. Newton tried a quarterback sneak--one where he was hesitant. Nate Nix reacted quickly off the edge to make the initial contact, and Greg Williams came up to help with the tackle, ending Kentucky's drive.
On Pitt's next drive, we saw the big change in momentum of the game. Before the ball was even snapped, Cruz blatantly jumped the whistle. The problem was that Kentucky defender Ridge Wilson didn't hear the whistle. Wilson kept coming through, and tackled Sunseri on the play--who stood defenseless with the ball in his hand, because he did hear the whistle. It wasn't completely the fault of Wilson. What happened next could have been prevented had the officials stepped in earlier, and been more adamant about the whistle, and the false start.
Anyone who knows the rules of football, knows left tackles and quarterbacks have a unique relationship. Jason Pinkston proved that, in grabbing Wilson off his quarterback, and throwing him to the ground. Players on the field started pushing and shoving. Coaches from both teams did a good job stepping in to prevent things from escalating even more.
Even though there were offsetting personal foul penalties, and an offsides call against Pitt, there was a whole new energy about Pitt and its fans. From there on, it was a whole new ball game.
"I think we responded well," Pinkston said of the play. "That was the second late hit they had on him. The one (on Sunseri on the previous play), I didn't see it. The one where the ball was blown dead, that's unacceptable for an offensive lineman to stand around and watch his quarterback get hit after the whistle. I thought what I did, at the time, was right, to let them know not to hit our quarterback late."
When play resumed, Kentucky fans started and ‘S-E-C' chant from the stands.
"They talked a lot about the SEC," Pinkston added. "We stood up for the Big East and Pittsburgh. We came out with a win today."
Because of the false start, and now the offsetting personal foul calls, Pitt was faced with a 2nd-and-12. Pitt settled for a 33-yard field goal from Hutchins, which put Pitt up 6-3 with 3:30 left in the half.
What the on-field melee showed, was a team in Pitt that had reached its boiling point. Though the officials didn't do a good enough job preventing the melee--as they should have stepped in right after the false start--the Pitt players came together in this instance, which got the Pitt crowd into it a little more. For everything the players have been through over the last month, they proved they were willing to fight for each other.
Pinkston's reaction inspired the team and its fans to turn this into a football game.
"What upset me, is that Tino had got hit out of bounds (on the previous play)," Bennett said. that was a late hit. That was a fifteen-yard penalty. It didn't appear at the time it was going to be called. I thought they did a nice job of handling it. With everything that happened, we're in SEC territory. They had twice as many fans. We couldn't even get in (to the stadium). (Kentucky fans) wouldn't get out of the way (of the bus). That's the kind of stuff we're fighting today, lets run over (them). It was a mindset."
Pitt's defense answered by holding Kentucky to a three-and-out. Andrew Taglianetti--a player who Bennett said earlier in the week was having an excellent round of practice this week--came through and blocked a punt. Kolby Gray fell on the punt at the Kentucky 10. After a couple Dion Lewis runs, Tino Sunseri snuck it in from one yard out, putting Pitt up 13-3 with 34 seconds left in the first half. Pitt took that lead into the locker room.
Pitt opened the second half with another defensive stand. Kentucky attempted a fake punt, but it was Matt Roark getting sacked by Kolby Gray on the play for a loss of 12. Taglianetti--who was all over the field--almost came up with the interception on the play. If Pinkston sticking up Sunseri wasn't the biggest play, or if Taglianetti's blocked punt wasn't enough of a big play, perhaps Gray breaking through and ending this fake punt attempt was. Already with a 10-point lead, the Panthers began their first offensive drive of the second half deep in Kentucky territory.
Pitt took over on the Kentucky 45. Pitt continued to pound Kentucky running the football on this drive. Though most of their runs were for short to mid-range yardage, by the law of large numbers, Pitt was due for a breakaway run. They got that as Graham scampered through a hole in the left side for a 31-yard gain to the Kentucky 12; Pitt's longest run of the day. Two plays later, Sunseri rolled out and found Brock DeCicco in the end zone for a 13-yard touchdown pass. DeCicco's line for the season; two receptions, 19 yards, two touchdowns.
Kentucky scored its first touchdown of the game thanks to a one-yard touchdown run by Moncell Allen; despite a holding penalty and offsetting personal foul penalties that slowed up the drive for the Wildcats. The Panthers had no answer for stopping the Wildcats, as they ran the ball heavily en route to their first touchdown. Kentucky marched 74 yards down the field on 14 plays.
Lewis' touchdown run, a two-yarder with 10:26 left in the game, put things away for Pitt, which closed a 12-play scoring drive.
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