PITTSBURGH (KDKA/AP) — Following a heartbreaking loss to their bitter rivals the West Virginia Mountaineers in the Backyard Brawl on Nov. 25, the Pitt Panthers were looking to end their season on a high note.
Senior cornerback Antwuan Reed made that possible when he returned a fumble 20 yards for a touchdown with less than 3 minutes to play – lifting the Panthers to a 33-20 victory over Syracuse on Saturday at Heinz Field.
The Panthers (6-6, 4-3 Big East) became bowl eligible for the fourth straight year with the win, a victory in itself following an enigmatic fall in which Pitt — picked to finish second in the Big East in the preseason — would look dominant one week and dismal the next.
Pitt forced six Syracuse turnovers and consistently came up with big stops whenever the Orange threatened.
Tino Sunseri threw for 259 yards and a score, and Kevin Harper drilled four field goals while the Pitt defense forced the reeling Orange (5-7, 1-6) into mistake after mistake.
Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib threw his 22nd touchdown pass of the season to tie a school record but also tossed two interceptions and fumbled twice as the Orange dropped their fifth straight.
The game may have been the final Big East contest for both schools, who announced in September they’re heading to the ACC by 2014. Both programs called the move — which could happen as early as next fall — a step up, though neither looked particularly ready during disappointing seasons.
The Panthers struggled adapting to Graham’s up-tempo system while the Orange went into a free-fall following a 49-23 upset over West Virginia in late October.
The Panthers have been just as uneven. Pitt dropped four games — to West Virginia, Cincinnati, Notre Dame and Iowa — by a combined 11 points, many of them punctuated by second-half collapses. The most painful may have come last week when the Panthers squandered their 13-point halftime lead against the Mountaineers.
Graham took much of the blame for his team’s inability to close out opponents. Pitt appeared to finally learn its lesson in the season finale.
The Orange trailed the entire game but pulled within 26-20 on Ross Krautman’s 23-yard field goal with 4:40 to go. Syracuse forced a Pitt punt and took over at its own 6 with 3:03 remaining. Nassib hit Alec Lemon for a 12-yard gain to start the drive, but Pitt’s defense delivered when senior linebacker Brandon Lindsey hit Nassib as he scrambled to his left. The ball floated into the air and Reed hauled it in before sprinting to the end zone.
Pitt’s Andrew Taglianetti picked off Nassib on the next Syracuse snap and the Panthers ran out the clock. The six turnovers by the Orange were the most produced by a Pitt defense since 2002.
Syracuse’s miscues started on the opening kickoff. Harper’s pooch kick was mishandled by Dorian Graham and the Panthers recovered at the Syracuse 22. Sunseri needed just one play to put Pitt on the board, hitting wide-open freshman tailback Isaac Bennett in the flat for a touchdown.
Less than 3 minutes later the lead was 10-0 after Lindsey intercepted Nassib at the Syracuse 46.
The Orange drew within 10-7 when Nassib found running back Antwon Bailey for a 26-yard touchdown pass, moving Nassib into a tie with former Syracuse stars Donovan McNabb and Don McPherson for the most scoring tosses in a season.
Syracuse outgained the Panthers 345-333 but couldn’t get enough stops to climb out of the early hole. Nassib completed 23 of 32 passes for 225 yards while Bailey ran for 53 yards to become the 10th back in school history to top 1,000 yards in a season.
He won’t get a chance to add to his total, however, as the Orange will head into winter workouts and a murky future.
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