The Pitt Panthers had a long 10-day break to try and figure out how to break a three-game losing streak.
Thursday night it looked like they put that time to good use.
Chad Voytik ran for a career-high 118 yards and threw a 53-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Boyd and James Conner scored a pair of touchdowns, as Pitt used that and a solid defensive effort in defeating Virginia Tech 21-16 in a nationally televised primetime game, putting an end to their skid.
”I was really proud of the way we responded,” said Pitt head coach Paul Chryst. “I’m proud of the way we played and the way we fought through this tough stretch.”
The win was the fourth consecutive time that Pitt (4-3, 2-1 ACC) has beaten Virginia Tech at Heinz Field.
The Panthers came out quickly against a Hokies defense that came into the game ranked 21st nationally.
Voytik was involved a lot early, completing his first five passes of the night. The sophomore had his number called frequently on the ground, and even caught a 29-yard pass from Boyd.
On Pitt’s second drive of the game, Voytik hit a streaking Boyd down the seam with a 53-yard touchdown pass, Pitt’s longest pass play of the season, to give the Panthers a 7-0 lead.
“It was a great throw by Chad,” said Boyd. “Anytime I am given a chance to make a play, I’m going to do the best I can to make it. It was an outside release and I just beat him inside. We watched a lot of film so I knew the safety would be there and just tried to avoid the hit.”
Things could have been a lot better for the Panthers early, but they wasted great field position on a couple of occasions and didn’t execute when they had to.
It wasn’t until James Conner broke a 15-yard touchdown run midway through the second quarter, one in which he ran over a couple of Virginia Tech tacklers, that Pitt got a bit of breathing room at 14-3.
The game went into the locker room at 14-3, but Pitt nearly wasted an outstanding first-half effort from their defense.
The Panthers outgained VT 144-7 in the first quarter and 177-66 in the half. Pitt didn’t allow the Hokies to get a first down until over 20 minutes into the game and did not allow a third-down conversion the entire first half.
But the Pitt offense couldn’t take advantage and pad their lead despite having plenty of opportunities, including starting inside the Virginia Tech 35 on two different occasions.
On their opening drive of the third quarter, Virginia Tech came out of the locker room and moved the ball better than they did the entire first half. It helped that Pitt kicker Chris Blewitt kicked the second half kickoff out of bounds and then Hokies’ quarterback Michel Brewer, who had a brutal first half by completing only 9-of-19 pass attempts for 55 yards, hit a diving Bucky Hodges with a 41-yard completion to give VT a first-and-goal.
Fortunately for Pitt, their defense held strong and the Hokies had to settle for a Joey Slye field goal, his third of the evening.
“We just had to go out there and fight and play our butts off until the final seconds,” said defensive back Reggie Mitchell. “We grew up tonight. Everyone did. Not just the young guys. We bounced back nicely and got the team morale back tonight.”
That would be as close as the Hokies would get.
Other than the one long pass play, Virginia Tech couldn’t muster much of anything on offense and saw their best chance go by the wayside when they failed on a fourth-and-two play inside Pitt territory.
That was the spark that the Panthers needed as they turned that defense stop into quick points.
Voytik broke loose on a 49-yard run and one play later Conner found the end zone for the second time on the evening, scoring from 13 yards out.
“I didn’t know how the game was going to play out,” said Voytik. “We were running a bunch of read stuff and the way it worked out that almost every call happened to be me keeping the ball. We read things good and made some big plays.”
While the Pitt offense made enough plays to win, the story of the evening was the defense, which tackled extremely well and had success getting off the field on third down.
Part of the Panthers success was limiting the Hokies, who were down to their fourth and fifth string tailbacks on the season, to only 26 yards rushing on the night. When they weren’t stuffing the run, the Panthers had great success pressuring Brewer all night long.
Virginia Tech added a late touchdown to make things interesting when Brewer connected with Cam Phillips on a 14-yard touchdown pass. The Hokies ended up getting the ball back with 2:30 left and a chance to take the lead, but a sack from linebacker Nicholas Grigsby all but ended that idea and the Pitt losing streak.
“We needed this bad,” said Voytik. “I got emotional after the game because I knew how big this win was and I knew how hard our players worked. And it was on ESPN, meaning the stage was big so it felt amazing to get the win. Hopefully this can be our turning point. This could be something where we look back and say this is where we turned the page.”
Pitt will be back in action Saturday September 25 when they play host to Georgia Tech.
Photo Credit: Associated Press