Panthers Lose Heartbreaker

In Pitt's last regular season game, they had one stolen from them at the end in a loss to Cincinnati, that cost them a BCS bowl berth. In their first regular season game since then, Pitt suffered another heartbreaking loss. Instead of losing it at the last second, Pitt came from behind to force overtime, then had it slip away in overtime, in a 27-24 loss to Utah.

"We wanted to go undefeated, but there's eleven more games to go," receiver Jon Baldwin said. "We just have to keep working hard."

All week, Dave Wannstedt said the game might come down to one turnover. He was right. Pitt had two turnovers to Utah's three, but it was a Tino Sunseri interception in the overtime period, that ended Pitt's offensive series, giving the ball back to Utah. Utah was able to capitalize, clinching the 27-24 win.

Aside from the turnovers, a blocked punt and a shanked punt--both by Utah, both teams combined for 23 penalties, including 13 from Pitt. Five of those penalties were false starts on the offensive line.

"We knew we'd have to play clean," head coach Dave Wannstedt said after the game. "I don't know how many penalties we had, but there were way too many for us to win."

Pitt got a couple lucky bounces in the first half. First, on Utah's second series, Antwuan Reed stripped the ball away from Shaky Smithson after a completion. Reed dove to make a tackle on him, but in the process, stripped Smithson of the ball. Reed recovered, but the result was a missed 42-yard field goal by Dan Hutchins.

With the game still scoreless, Utah put together a short six-play drive, before punting, dropping Pitt deep inside its own territory. Aside from forcing turnovers, another thing Pitt was going to have to do was convert third downs. They did as much, with the ball deep in their own territory. Tino Sunseri threw a bullet at Cameron Saddler for a five yard gain on this drive on the Hutchins missed field goal drive, and 14-yard completion to Henry Hynoski on this drive. Though it looked like the offense was playing it safe, keeping Sunseri with the short passes, it was Sunseri's second third-down conversion in the first half alone.

While Sunseri seemed to be okay throwing those safe, short passes--Pitt tried to establish the ground game. Dion Lewis was not getting much help from his offensive line. A lot of times, Lewis was left to fend for himself, which he took a lot of good shots from the Utah defense, as a result of. Lewis was given the ball three straight times, and was held to no gain on a third-and-one. Lewis ran the ball 13 times for 55 yards in the first half, and ended up with 75 yards on 25 carries--a night far below his usual standard.

"We struggled early to throw," Wannstedt added. "We knew we'd have to find some balance. Every week they make it tough on Dion. We need some balance. We only had 43 passing yards in the first half. That's tough."

Then, Pitt got a stroke of good luck its way. After a Dan Hutchins punt was muffed by Shaky Smithson, the ball bounced into the hands of Buddy Jackson, who covered the punt perfectly. Jackson was in close enough range to take Smithson's concentration off the ball, but not close enough to be balled for kick-catching interference. Jackson recovered the ball at the Utah 28 yard-line.

This time after recovering a turnover, Pitt marched the 28 yards in five plays, eating 2:51 off the clock. Utah answered with a 11-play, 80-yard drive that lasted 5:33. It looked like Pitt was wearing down Utah a little bit after that first touchdown of the game. Strangely, after Pitt held the ball for 13 of the first 18 minutes, Utah got their energy back after a scoring drive that quarterback Jordan Wynn completed six-of-seven passes.

The more concerning thing, was how Wynn was finding his receivers. He had a knack for eyeing the linebacker in coverage--either Max Gruder or Dan Mason, and completing it to that guy. It wasn't all about the pass, either, that the linebackers got exposed. Mason got sucked in on Matt Asiata's first run of the game--a 15-yard run out of the Wildcat formation. Both Mason and Gruder were caught out of position on key third downs. Luckily, on a short completion to receiver Devonte Christopher, Christopher fell down on the play after beating Gruder in coverage. Had he not, he had nothing but a field of green in front of him.

Things worsened for Pitt, immediately on ensuing kickoff. Jason Douglas fumbled the kickoff return, which was recovered by kicker Nick Marsh on the play. Utah took the lead on a two-play drive, covering 35 yards--a three-yard touchdown pass from Wynn to Jordan Brooks.

After another three-and-out, Utah almost took a seemingly convincing 21-7 lead into the locker room. While Mason and Gruder were getting picked on for much of the first half, Mason finally came up with a big play, blitzing up the middle, putting a hurry on Wynn. Jared Holley had enough time to step in front of the intended receiver, to pick off the pass in the end zone.

Instead of being down 21-7, Pitt was down 14-7, with the ball one more time in the first half. With 50 seconds left, Pitt inexplicably ran the clock down to eight seconds, facing a third-and-one. After the time out, Henry Hynoski ran for a short gain to convert the first time, and Pitt took it in to the locker room, trailing 14-7.

Utah got the ball to start the second half, and ate up just over three minutes, getting a field goal to extend its lead to 17-7. Pitt needed desperately to get something going on its next series. Because of its inability to produce anything on offense to this point, a 10-point lead was safe.

Though Pitt couldn't establish anything on its first series of the second half, they got a big play after stopping Utah on a three-and-out. Antwuan Reed was able to get through and block the kick, which was recovered by Nate Nix at the Utah eight yard-line. It was the second big play for Reed in the game. The Panthers punched it in four plays later, an a bizarre drive where they actually lost yards. They were penalized for a false start, Sunseri was sacked, yet they were still able to score.

The next time Pitt touched the ball, after holding Utah to another three-and-out, they carried the ball for 15 plays, and over eight minutes. Though it only resulted in a field goal, this drive kept the Utah defense on the field, and gave the Panthers even more momentum, coming off the blocked punt by Reed.

According to Reed, who came up with the two big plays to set up the offense in Utah territory, he said there was nothing to his individual plays, nor was there anything to the defense doing anything special.

"The blocked punt, the fumble, it doesn't really matter," Reed said. "None of it matters. We have to regroup, and get back to it on Saturday. It just wasn't our day."

It really wasn't the secondary's day when Wynn connected with DeVonte Christopher for a 61-yard bomb. Christopher led the Utes with career highs of eight receptions and 155 yards, but that also marked his first career touchdown reception. He couldn't have picked a more ideal time to come up with his first score. The Utes went up convincingly, or so it appeared, 24-13, approaching the halfway mark of the final period.

It was then, that Wannstedt took the leash off Sunseri. For the first 53 minutes, Jon Baldwin caught two passes for eight yards, a far cry from the All-American numbers that is expected of him. Sunseri connected with him on a 44-yard touchdown pass with 7:11 left to play. On top of that, Baldwin caught the two-point conversion, on a roll out from Sunseri, as Pitt narrowed the score to 24-21. While both teams took their turns possessing the ball, with these last two scoring drives, both teams showed they can score quickly as well.

"Basically, it was man-to-man (coverage)," Baldwin said of the touchdown grab. "I just made a double move, and he bit on it."

Sunseri rolled out for the two-point conversion, and connected with Baldwin, who went as the man in motion. Pitt trailed 24-21 with just over seven minutes left.

Utah had one last chance on offense, in regulation. They could either run another sustained drive, or try to put up a quick score, to pad their lead. Things were looking good early on the drive, until left tackle John Cullen pushed down on Chas Alecxih after Alecxih made a tackle on running back Eddie Wade. Following Cullen's 15-yard penalty, quarterback Wynn threw two more incompletions, forcing the Utes to punt with just over two and a half minutes left in the game. Instead of pinning Pitt back in their territory, punter Sean Sellwood shanked the punt, and Pitt was able to start their final drive of regulation at midfield.

The Panthers drove 10 plays, and 37 yards, settling for the field goal. When Sunseri connected with Mike Shanahan for a 19-yard gain to the Utah 14, with 40 seconds left to play, it looked like Pitt would have enough time to hit a couple pass plays, and get the win. Instead, after two incompletions, Dion Lewis--who struggled all night, finding the hole, took a draw play, gaining a yard, to set up kicker Dan Hutchins for a game-tying 30-yard field goal.

Wannstedt defended his decision after the game, as did the players.

"Obviously we have a fade with J.B. down there," Sunseri said. "We just tried to take what the defense gave us. We just thought they weren't giving us the right coverage."

"Coaches call the plays, we just try to execute in the game," Baldwin added. "We tried to execute in the game. Things didn't work out too well."

That was only the beginning. Pitt took the clock down to three seconds, where they brought in Hutchins for his third field goal attempt of the game. Hutchins' first attempt was good, but Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham called time out right before the ball was snapped, leaving the play null. Whittingham did it on Hutchins' second attempt. Instead of being done with a 24-21 victory, Pitt was fortunate enough to have another shot. On the third time, not only did Hutchins connect, but there was no Whittingham timeout. The score was tied 24-24, heading to overtime.

Pitt got the ball on offense to start. Riding the momentum that Sunseri picked up in the fourth quarter, Pitt went back to him on the first play. He rolled out to his right, looking for Mike Shanahan. That gap quickly closed on him, as safety Brian Blechen stepped in to make the interception.

Utah got its turn on offense, running the ball with Wide once, then letting Asiata carry it six more times, before Joe Phillips kicked a chip-shot 21-yard field goal to give Utah the win.

"As tough as it was to lose that game by that score, we didn't play well enough to win," Wannstedt said. "Too many mistakes. Our guys will fight hard. We just need to play more consistent."


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