Pitt was dealt three more key injuries—including one to starting tailback Ray Graham. Yet, the Panthers were able to hold on for an impressive 35-20 win over UConn at Heinz Field on Wednesday night.
The Panthers also lost starters Cameron Saddler and Matt Rotheram to undisclosed injuries. Rotheram was seen with crutches on the sideline in the third quarter. All this in addition to the news earlier in the week of Jason Hendricks and Salath Williams lost for the season; both with season-ending shoulder surgeries. Pitt also played its fifth game without senior offensive lineman Chris Jacobson and its fourth game without senior lineman Lucas Nix. Neither or Saddler or Rotheram returned to the game.
Again—despite all this, Pitt won by 15 points. All five of Pitt's touchdown drives lasted less than three minutes. Quarterback Tino Sunseri completed 29-of-42 passes for 419 yards and two touchdowns. The 401 passing yards are the most by a Pitt quarterback since Rod Rutherford threw for 419 yards in a loss at West Virginia in 2003, and ties for the fourth-highest output by a Pitt quarterback in school history. It's also the most yards thrown in a collegiate game at Heinz Field—by either Pitt or its opponent.
Sunseri also led Pitt with 40 yards on 12 carries. While it was odd to have a quarterback lead the team in rushing, they had a running back lead the team in receiving. Zach Brown—filling in for the injured Ray Graham—led the Panthers with nine catches for 84 yards. The Panthers also had big games from Mike Shanahan (4 receptions, 76 yards, TD), Cameron Sadder (3 receptions, 66 yards) and Devin Street (5 receptions, 70 yards, TD).
Graham went down on Pitt's fourth offensive play, also just his second carry of the game. He ran for a first down on his first carry of the game, then ran for a gain of a yard on that second carry. Graham landed awkwardly on his right knee. He was helped off by the team's training staff, then later taken to the locker room on a golf cart. His return for this game is doubtful, and no further prognosis has been given.
Sunseri picked it up in Graham's absence on the ground, starting with that first touchdown drive. He led the Panthers on an eight-play drive that went 84 yards and lasted just 2:18. Sunseri rushed three times for 44 yards on that scoring drive, including an eight-yard rushing touchdown. Pitt led 7-0 just five minutes in.
After two UConn punts, Pitt extended its lead to 14-0 just before halftime. Sunseri found a wide-open Mike Shanahan. Shanahan caught a ten-yard pass over the middle, then turned and still crossed the goal line; beating out two defenders converging on him. Pitt's second scoring drive went 62 yards in seven plays, and lasted just 2:56.
Pitt's defense also played a great first half, holding the Huskies to just three points and 80 total yards in 30 plays (2.7 yards per play). With the emphasis on turnovers each week, the Panthers didn't need any turnovers in the first half. They also did not force any turnovers for the game. The front seven brought consistent pressure, finishing with three sacks in the first half and six for the game. The Panthers also had a good effort from its secondary. On one early play, the secondary even broke up a pass on itself when Antwuan Reed broke up an interception from Jarred Holley. Despite the mistake, it was a sign of the secondary flying to the ball.
Later in the first half, K'Wauan Williams made a great pass breakup on intended UConn receiver Ryan Griffin at the goal line. Williams was in one-on-one coverage. Quarterback Johnny McEntee's pass was right there. Unfortunately for UConn, so was Williams as he tipped the ball the second it came in his vicinity. UConn had to settle for a field goal, which made it a 14-3 game with 7:17 left in the half.
Pitt started slipping towards the end of the half, as they lost a total of two yards on a three-and-out, gave up a sack and a holding penalty. It was Pitt's worst series of the half. UConn answered with a 36-yard punt return from Nick Williams—a season-long. That set the Huskies up at the Pitt 35.
Pitt added another touchdown later in the half on a three-yard touchdown run by Zach Brown. The key play of that drive was a 40-yard completion to Cameron Saddler, that set Pitt up at the three. Saddler took a short pass reception from Sunseri, then turned it up field. He got behind the next level of defenders before finally being gang-tackled at the UConn three.
Sunseri even got the ball inside the UConn 30 on Pitt's final series of the first half. The Panthers looked like they were going to add a fourth touchdown, before a pair of incompletions and a sack ended any hopes to adding another score.
After Pitt lost Graham on Pitt's opening drive, the Panthers also lost Saddler and offensive lineman Matt Rotheram on the final drive of the first half. Rotheram was replaced by Cory King at right guard.
The Huskies struck first in the second half, marching 85 yards on just five plays. Johnny McEntee—who completed just 2-of-13 passes in the first half—found a wide-open Kashif Moore for a 62-yard touchdown pass, trimming the Pitt lead to 21-10 in just under four minutes of play in the second half.
After a three-and-out, the Huskies put together another successful drive. They got as far as the Pitt 8 before Todd Thomas and Myles Caragein combined on a sack. Though the Huskies had to settle for a field goal—which made the score 21-13 in favor of Pitt with 4:08 left in the third quarter—UConn did march 64 yards in 13 plays, and seemed to be gaining more confidence. Even if you look at what both teams had done in the second half to this point—Pitt with just seven plays of offense and two punts, UConn with 18 plays for 149 yards and 10 points to show, the momentum was starting to swing UConn's way.
Even though UConn outplayed Pitt to this point, the Panthers answered on their third offensive series of the second half—marching 82 yards on five plays. The offense got in a rhythm again, thanks to Sunseri getting the ball out quickly, and his receivers turning short-yardage receptions into big plays. None were bigger than Mike Shanahan's 27-yard touchdown reception. Shanahan caught a short ten-yard pass, juked away out one defender, then got up the sideline and outran another defender on his way to the end zone. Sunseri completed all four of his passing attempts on the drive for 71 yards. Pitt led 28-13 after three quarters.
Pitt tried to tack on a field goal to start the fourth quarter. Kevin Harper's 50-yard attempt was good, but Brendan Carozzoni was flagged for an illegal shift at the line. Harper stayed on to try a 55-yarder after the penalty, but the kick went wide right. A 55-yarder would have set both Heinz Field and Pitt school records.
The Pitt defense held UConn on downs in its next series. Pitt took over on the UConn 38, and drove all the way to the end zone—capping off the drive with a 14-yard touchdown pass from Ronald Jones to Devin Street.
UConn tacked on a late touchdown with 43 seconds left in the game, with the game well in hand for Pitt. McEntee found Ryan Griffith for a 14-yard touchdown pass, which made for the final 35-20 score.
Stay tuned for more coverage from Pitt's win over UConn.