Close wins key to 6-1 start

Pitt went 1-5 in one-score games last year. After Saturday's 23-20 win, the No. 23 Panthers are 5-1 in such games and out to a 6-1 record.

When the third quarter ended Saturday at the Carrier Dome, Pitt coaches and players celebrated. They sprayed water bottles, jumped around and made noise despite facing a four-point deficit while the Syracuse faithful booed.

The Panthers knew they weren’t celebrating the end of the game but rather the beginning of the fourth quarter, as they’ve done at the end of each third quarter this season. After Pitt blew three fourth-quarter leads in 2014, head coach Pat Narduzzi revamped the team’s attitude toward each game’s final period.

“At the end of the day you’ve got to win the game,” Narduzzi said. “If it’s a close game, you’ve got to step up and make something happen.”

What’s been the key to Pitt’s newfound late-game success?

“Energy and focus,” middle linebacker Matt Galambos said. “You see before the fourth quarter we all get together at midfield and we’re trying to have a party on the field.”

Pitt went 1-5 in one-score games during the 2014 season, which ended in a fourth-consecutive 6-6 regular-season finish. Now under Narduzzi and their “party” mentality, the Panthers are 5-1 in such contests as they’ve soared to a 6-1 start and No. 23 ranking.

“Pitt-ing” in recent seasons entailed the Panthers finding unexpected, gut-wrenching ways to lose games. Half a season into Narduzzi’s tenure, “Pitt-ing” now features a team playing to win rather than one merely playing not to lose.

“It’s no secret,” Narduzzi said. “You’ve just got to do it and you have to have that attitude to win football games whenever that opportunity exists.”

The latest rendition of the “new Pitt” came in a 23-20 win at Syracuse Saturday, when the offense used a 19-play, 89-yard drive that spanned the game’s final 9:20 to set up Chris Blewitt’s walk-off 25-yard field goal.

Pitt’s victory against the Orange also marked the first time in six years the Panthers won a game they trailed in the fourth quarter. Pitt’s last comeback was six years ago in a 19-17 victory against Thursday’s opponent North Carolina in the 2009 Meineke Car Care Bowl.

Until Saturday, Pitt lost 32 consecutive games it trailed in the fourth quarter.  

The win is another tangible success from the philosophy instilled during Narduzzi’s first practices at Pitt.

“It really started back in spring ball,” Galambos said. “Once the coaches got here, starting that culture to finish everything. It’s not over until that whistle blows.”

Even before then, to ensure the players didn’t forget about previous late-game pitfalls, the new coaching staff dubbed the team’s early-morning winter conditioning workouts as the “Fourth-Quarter Program.”

Galambos, honored as the ACC Linebacker of the Week after he intercepted a pass then caught one on a key fake punt which kept Pitt’s game-winning drive alive, and the rest of the Panthers have followed the example set by their lively head coach.

“It’s just coach Narduzzi,” Galambos said. “He has so much energy all the time, it’s hard not to feel that energy. It doesn’t matter whether we’re in the meeting room, practice, lifting, from all the coaches it really trickles down to us.”

Notes
  • Yet again, Panthers received weekly recognition from the ACC. Tyler Boyd (receiver), Matt Galambos (linebacker) and running back Qadree Ollison (rookie) each earned league honors. Boyd racked up a career-high 12 receptions for 93 yards, rushed six times for 34 yards and completed a 38-yard pass. Alongside Galambos' reception on the fake punt during Pitt's game-winning drive, he recorded five tackles, three for loss, and an interception. Ollison carried 23 times for 103 yards and two touchdowns. 
  • Speaking of Boyd, both Narduzzi and quarterback Nate Peterman espoused the support for Tyler Boyd's Heisman candidacy. From Narduzzi: "He does it all. I don't know why people aren't talking about him for Heisman."
  • During Saturday's fake punt, Peterman says his attention was slightly divided: "I was getting a little talking-to by coach (Jim) Chaney, a stern talking-to about the previous plays, but that was a great surprise."
  • The Panthers face a short week with Thursday night's matchup against North Carolina, but expect to be prepared just the same. The team practiced today and will do so Tuesday and Wednesday to get the normal three-practice week in, and Narduzzi added the coaches worked Sunday as well. Against the Tar Heels' no-huddle attack on offense and Gene Chizik's defense, Pitt can't afford to miss any potential prep time but is also challenged with making sure the players are rested and ready to go Thursday.

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