The offense couldn't run the ball, the defense had trouble against the run and also had difficulty stopping Pittsburgh on third down, all of which made it remarkable Rutgers actually had the ball and a chance to force overtime in the closing minutes.
However, the offensive struggles continued up until the last meaningful play, which is when Scarlet Knights freshman receiver Mohamed Sanu fumbled after making a reception on fourth-and-6 near midfield with 1:02 to play.
Pittsburgh's Antwan Reed recovered the loose ball, and secured a 24-17 win Friday in front of 50,296 at Rutgers Stadium, halting a four-game losing streak against Rutgers while also ending the Scarlet Knights' four-game winning streak.
"I was just trying to bring (the ball) in and lean forward and make sure I got the first down,'' Sanu said. "He got a hand in there and punched the ball out. It's a little frustrating, but I just have to put that behind me and move forward and learn from my mistakes. I need to tuck the ball away faster.''
The loss likely put an early end to any Big East title dreams Rutgers harbored this season. The Scarlet Knights (4-2) are 0-2 in league play while Pittsburgh (6-1, 3-0 Big East) remained perfect in the conference despite missing two field goals, losing two fumbles and having a punt blocked. "I think we're a team that's getting better,'' Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said. "We were better tonight that we've been. We were playing better competition.''
The Panthers controlled the ball, and the clock. Freshman running back Dion Lewis ran for 180 yards on 31 carries, including a 58-yard touchdown run with 5:19 left in the third quarter to push Pittsburgh's lead to 24-10.
He also used his quick feet to dance away from would-be tacklers and constantly made positive yardage despite being seemingly trapped in the backfield.
"We need to get him on the ground,'' Schiano said. "You can't have 50- and 60-yard runs. You have a secondary back there, and they have to get him on the ground, too. We have to work on that. That's something we didn't do a good job on, and my hat's off to Pitt.''
The Panthers also converted 10 of 17 third down chances and held the ball for nearly 34 minutes. "That's not like us,'' Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said. "I have to look at the tape. Pitt did a very good job. Protection-wise they did a good job. We got to (Stull) a few times and hit him, but he was still able to get the ball off. …That is not like us. We have to be able to get off the field on third down.''
But it was Rutgers' inability to play consistently on offense which was the biggest issue. The running game mounted 38 yards on 20 carries, and 11 of those came on Sanu's first-quarter touchdown run from the "Wildcat'' formation.
It led to Savage throwing 39 times. He completed 23 and finished with 248 yards and a touchdown. He also threw his first career interception.
"We felt our best way to win the football game was to throw the football,'' Schiano said. "We just needed to make a few more plays and not make as many mistakes.''
Even during a 76-yard drive that resulted in San San Te's 23-yard field goal at the end of the half, things were not smooth. The Scarlet Knights moved the ball to Pittsburgh's 3-yard line, but lost a yard on Joe Martinek's first-down run to the left. Savage's second down pass was incomplete a third down throw to Kordell Young left the ball on the 6-yard line.
Te's field goal pulled the Scarlet Knights within 17-10 at the half, but it could have been closer. Rutgers also couldn't take advantage of a blocked punt in the third quarter, taking over on the 39-yard line, but Savage took a 13-yard sack on the next play and the drive never materialized.
"Too many negative yard plays,'' Savage said. "I have to make better decisions. There's a reason it's not first-and-15. You have to get positive yards.''
It wasn't until Stull fumbled early in the fourth quarter and Rutgers recovered on the Pittsburgh 49-yard line the offense showed life. It ended with Savage connecting with receiver Tim Brown on a 19-yard pass over the middle as Rutgers crept within 24-17 with 9:37 to play.
Pittsburgh drove down field and could have put the game away, but Hutchins missed a 30-yard field goal to give Rutgers one last chance.
"I think our whole offense did great. I just put a lot of it on me,'' Savage said. "You can't turn the ball over, especially against good teams like that. The defense played well, the offensive line blocked awesome.''