PITTSBURGH (KDKA/AP) — The Pitt Panthers were looking to build on their big win over UConn all the way back on Oct. 26 as the Cincinnati Bearcats rolled into town this weekend.
While the Panthers led by 10 early in the third quarter, a pair of turnovers deep in their own territory allowed the Bearcats to get back into the game and come away with a 26-23 victory Saturday evening at Heinz Field.
Zach Collaros threw for 214 yards and ran for two touchdowns as No. 23 Cincinnati took firm control of the Big East race with the win.
Isaiah Pead rushed for 118 yards and Tony Miliano kicked four field goals for the Bearcats (7-1, 3-0 Big East), who won their sixth straight and took a significant step toward winning the program’s third conference title in four years.
For Pitt, Tino Sunseri ran for a touchdown and passed for another but Kevin Harper’s 50-yard field goal attempt with 14 seconds left was wide right.
The Bearcats appeared to be in serious trouble after the Panthers took a 23-13 lead midway early in the third quarter on Tino Sunseri’s 4-yard toss to tight end Hubie Graham.
Yet Cincinnati rallied doing what it’s done all season: Forcing opponents into careless turnovers and turning them into points.
Pitt (4-5, 2-2) led by a touchdown late in the third quarter when Sunseri appeared to scramble for a first down. The ball popped out, however, and the Bearcats recovered at the Pitt 27. Cincinnati needed just three plays to tie it at 23, with Collaros plunging over from 3 yards out for his second touchdown of the game.
It took the Bearcats all of three plays to get it back again. Sunseri tried to throw the ball in double coverage and instead it wound up deflecting into the hands of Camerron Cheatham, who returned it to the Pitt 26.
The pick led to Miliano’s fourth field goal of the game, and the Bearcats held on. Barely.
The Panthers struggled throughout the second half but managed to put together one last desperate drive, moving from the Pitt 11 to the Cincinnati 33.
Harper had nailed a 52-yarder to through the same goal posts in the first quarter, the longest collegiate field goal in Heinz Stadium history. His bid to send the game to overtime never had a chance. It was right all the way and when the referees signaled it was no good the Bearcats — picked to finish fifth in the preseason — stormed onto the field.
Cincinnati heads into the final month of the season in command in the Big East. The Bearcats lead Louisville by a game but have already beaten the Cardinals this year. Every other team in the conference has two losses.
Heady stuff for a program still thought to be rebuilding under second-year coach Butch Jones.
The project is well ahead of schedule, though the Panthers made Pitt work for it.
Cincinnati came in allowing just 72.7 yards per game on the ground, second in the country behind Alabama.
The Panthers had that number by halftime even without star running back Ray Graham, who tore the ACL in his right knee against Connecticut 10 days ago. He underwent surgery on Monday and led his teammates onto the field just before the opening kickoff, slowly working his crutches across the turf.
His presence helped stake the Panthers to a 16-13 halftime lead thanks to a rare mistake by Collaros, who threw two interceptions for a team that entered third in the nation in turnover margin.
When Sunseri found Hubie Graham to put Pitt up 10 less than 2 minutes into the third quarter, Pitt was in full command. Then, as the Panthers have done too often this season, they self-destructed.
The offensive line collapsed, Sunseri — who completed 24 of 38 passes for 218 yards and a score — had no time to throw and the Bearcats started containing Zach Brown, who ran for 54 yards in place of Ray Graham.
In the end it was enough to move the Bearcats within an unlikely third trip to a Bowl Championship Series berth in four years. And they’ve done it by showing a flair for the dramatic.
Cincinnati has trailed by nine points in the second half of each of its three league games. And won all three.
Up next for Pitt is a showdown at Louisville on Nov. 12.
(TM and © Copyright 2011 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)