If the opening play was any indicator as to how the day would play out between Pitt and Syracuse, the Orange should have just packed it in early and gone back to New York.
Pitt (6-6) capitalized on an opening kickoff fumble, turning that into seven points on the very next play. Just two plays later, the Orange were feeling the Christmas spirit and gave the ball back to the Panthers. Before 2:25 had elapsed, Pitt held a double-digit lead and would not look back in a 33-20 win at Heinz Field.
It was 26-20 late in the 4th quarter when Pitt DB Antwuan Reed picked up a fumble by Orange QB Ryan Nassib and dashed 20 yards for the final score, icing the win. The play was set up when his Panther teammate Brandon Lindsey forced the ball loose.
"I'm so proud of these guys," Pitt head coach Todd Graham said. "At some point along the way, you expect people to complain when you lose close games, but these guys never did. The secondary has done an unbeliveble job embracing a new scheme. It's been real positive."
Syracuse (5-7) turned the ball over six times Saturday afternoon, the most forced by a Panthers defense since 2002.
"In the past we've been in the top 10 in turnovers,' said Graham. "Sometimes the ball bounces different but today we got points when it mattered."
Pitt would score 20 of their 33 points off Syracuse giveaways on this crisp, cool afternoon. Taking a 10-0 lead on the Orange just over two minutes in gave Pitt some options regarding their offense and seemed to ease the pressure mounting on Panthers QB Tino Sunseri who was 25 of 34 for 259 yards. He threw for one TD and was picked off once.
Despite playing well, Graham inserted Anthony Gonzalez into the lineup, running plays mostly out of a wildcat formation for 36 yards, including a 17-yard score in the 1st quarter to give Pitt a 17-7 lead.
"He showed some great promise, running the offense when asked,' said Graham of Gonzalez. "I was happy for him and it will help with his development in the offense."
Kevin Harper was also busy on this senior day, booting four Panther field goals from 37, 36 twice and 47 yards. He was 4 of 5 kicking on the afternoon. Freshman RB Issac Bennett ran the ball 13 times for 51 yards, while catching seven passes for 61 yards, including a 22-yard 1st quarter score.
"His play has been big, given the injuries at running back,' said Graham. "We need him and he's responded."
The victory also made the Panthers bowl eligible for the 4th straight year. The Orange were in need of a win to become bowl eligible as well as Pitt, so the contest served as an elimination game of sorts.
Despite not knowing where his team will play, Graham was clear about how important having extra practices would impact his younger players.
"You can't put a price tag on those 15 extra practices we will get for the bowl game,' Graham offered. "We need them for the young kids. We will get a good seven or eight practices just for them, without the veterans. Our goal is to win championships and that will help with next year."
For 17 seniors, this could have been their final game, including Reed whose late touchdown sealed the win.
"We didn't want to go out on a loss," Reed said. "Our goal was to go out on a positive and we did that today."
Graham was also happy for the other 16 young men who played their final home game in a Panther uniform.
"It was great for the seniors. They have been the strength of our team. Our defense has been strong. We've had our troubles on offense. If you want a championship team, you have to play great defense. Not one time did they point a finger or show anger. It's a testament to the leadership of the seniors."
Now the Panthers will have to wait and see who and where they will play their final game of 2011 against. Bowl selections will be handed out on Sunday evening.