Murphy’s Law was in full effect for about the first quarter and a half of Thursday night’s game at Heinz Field for the Pitt Panthers. You name it; it went wrong — turnovers, penalties and straight-up bad luck. In one instance, a well-defended pass ping-ponged off both the Virginia Tech receiver and the Pitt defender, staying alive and off the ground long enough to be hauled in for a big gain for the Hokies.
But the efforts of Pitt’s determined defense weren’t enough, and the Panthers (5-3, 2-2 ACC) lost the conference matchup, 39-36, to No. 25 Virginia Tech (6-2, 4-1).
After a conventional 76 yard Virginia Tech opening drive resulted in a field goal, all hell broke loose for Pitt. Quadree Henderson fumbled the ensuing kickoff, and the Hokies set up shop at Pitt’s 19 yard line.
On the Panthers’ next possession, quarterback Nathan Peterman was intercepted on an errant throw at the Pitt 30 yard line. But the Pitt defense came up big and forced a punt.
That punt pinned the Panthers’ offense at their own 9 yard line, and, from there, the possession was a veritable comedy of errors. Henderson ran for a three yard loss, and a false start moved Pitt back half the distance to its goal; Henderson then ran for a loss of two more, and another false start meant the Panthers had to move back half the distance to their goal once again. Only a bruising 11 yard third down run by James Conner provided the Panthers with a positive play and some semblance of an offense.
Later, Pitt again shot itself in the foot — this time with a defensive penalty. On a 3rd and 8, Panthers linebacker Quintin Wirginis picked off Virginia Tech quarterback Jerod Evans, but the play was called back when cornerback Dennis Briggs was flagged for lining up in the neutral zone. Pitt bent but didn’t break, stalling the Hokies’ drive at the Pitt 5 yard line for Virginia Tech’s third field goal of the game, which pushed its lead to 9-0.
After the teams traded punts, Pitt’s offense finally joined the party, capping an eight-play 84 yard drive with a six yard run touchdown run by Conner.
A suspect pass interference call proved costly for Pitt when it extended a Virginia Tech drive, which ended up being its first touchdown drive of the day when Evans hooked up with tight end Chris Cunningham on a play-action pass for an 11 yard score. The Hokies distanced themselves with a 16-7 lead.
Pitt cut the Hokies’ lead to 16-14 right before half when Conner ran the ball into the endzone, and the Panthers took their first lead when Pitt started the second half with the ball and — who else — Conner scored his third touchdown of the contest.
Because Virginia Tech failed to get much traction on the ground in the first half, the team decided to try airing it out. The Hokies marched 70 yards but had to settle for a field goal and temporarily lost their quarterback in the process when his ankle was rolled up on a sack.
After a couple of more scores by Virginia Tech, Pitt went back to Mr. Reliable, Conner, who gashed the Hokies for 40 yards on his first carry of the drive and 60 total yards. And then Pitt finished the drive with some razzle dazzle when tackle Brian O’Neill lined up as an eligible receiver on the end of the line and took an end-around six yards for another big-man touchdown. (O’Neill previously scored a touchdown on a throwback pass against Georgia Tech.)
Pitt went for the two point conversion to try to tie the game up at 29, and Conner took the shovel pass right over to successfully do so. But Virginia Tech answered and gave itself the lead once more when kicker Joey Slye knocked in his sixth — yes, you read that right, sixth — field goal of the game.
When the Panthers were unable to answer, the Hokies came up with another touchdown, stretching their lead to 10 points to Isaiah Ford, who finished with 143 yards and a touchdown on 10 catches.
Still, Pitt was able to keep the game interesting when the Panthers scored another touchdown to put the game within three points.
But a challenge on a third and short didn’t go Pitt’s way and Virginia Tech was given the game-ending first down.
Pitt dropped another heart breaker. Final score: Virginia Tech, 39, Pitt, 36.
Image credit: Pitt Athletics