PITTSBURGH (93-7 The FAN) — A number of plays and decisions can be targeted as the moment that cost Pitt the game Saturday night in a 26-23 loss to Cincinnati at Heinz Field.
A popular one is the fourth-and-6 conversion gone bad in the fourth quarter with 3:42 remaining. Pitt had driven to the Cincinnati 36-yard line and took a timeout, only to have a complete disconnect on a pass from Tino Sunseri to Devin Street.
You could also look at that play and ask why coach Todd Graham chose not to attempt what would have been a 53-yard field goal since kicker Kevin Harper had already hit a 52-yarder to the same side of the field.
Harper’s final attempt, from 50 yards with nine seconds remaining, went far wide to the right. That contributed to the loss as well.
But what really cost Pitt the game was an escape from discipline. Just a few costly errors let this game spiral out of control in an incredibly quick period of time and allowed the Bearcats to seize all the momentum.
After Pitt was spotless in both the turnover and penalty categories in the first half, the Panthers saw penalties and turnovers lead to their demise as the game progressed.
Pitt held a 23-13 lead after the first drive of the second half. The offense went on a touchdown-scoring drive to start the second half and totaled 269 yards to that point in the game. The defense followed by holding Cincinnati to a three-and-out and Pitt’s offense was quickly back on the field with a chance to push the lead to three scores.
It didn’t seem like it then, but that was the end of the high-octane success. Pitt’s longest offensive drive from then on was 20 yards until the final drive of the game.
On Pitt’s next drive, a phantom block-in-the-back penalty against wide receiver Mike Shanahan nullified a 5-yard gain and put Pitt in first-and-20 yardage. The Panthers went three-and-out, and Cincinnati drove the field on its next possession to close the gap to 23-16 with a field goal.
Pitt got the ball back and Sunseri fumbled the ball away on third down after inexplicably trying to shake off a linebacker. Cincinnati got the ball at Pitt’s 27-yard line and scored a touchdown three plays later to tie the game, 23-23.
Pitt got the ball back again and a false start on Shanahan forced Pitt into a second-and-15 situation. Sunseri, now forced to throw, was picked off. Cincinnati kicked what proved to be the game-winning field goal just four plays later.
“We made way too many mental errors,” Graham said. “The second half, we went out and turned over the football twice and had a penalty that really hurt us.”
There you have it. In less than 11 minutes Pitt had let a 10-point lead and all the momentum crumble into a pile of mistakes bigger than the line of students waiting to be bussed back to Oakland.
The offense was never the same. Sunseri creeped back into his old ways and the timing of the offense sputtered. The offensive line couldn’t give Sunseri any time to survey the field. The running game was taken out of the picture as time wore down.
As quickly as Pitt got things going and executed a good game plan offensively, everything fell apart. Those plays at the end of the game would never have happened had Pitt remained strong in the areas Graham finds most valuable: penalties and turnovers.
Chris Gates | Area 4-1-Zoo Blog