Not a lot has gone right for the Pitt Panthers football team lately, but Saturday afternoon, they put together a solid all-around performance in a 30-7 victory over longtime foe Syracuse.
The Panthers not only put an end to their three-game losing streak, but in the process kept their slim bowl hopes alive for at least one more week.
“It was a good win,” said Pitt head coach Paul Chryst. “The last couple weeks haven’t been easy, but the guys keep staying strong and kept their focus. It was a big day for the seniors also.”
And for a change, it wasn’t just the Pitt (5-6, 3-4 ACC)offense that carried the team.
The Pitt defense came to play early on, forcing a three-and-out on Syracuse’s (3-8, 1-6) first series, then producing back-to-back turnovers.
Ray Vinopal forced a fumble by Orange running back Prince-Tyson Gulley that Pitt linebacker Todd Thomas recovered to give the Panthers the ball at the Syracuse 28.
After seeing their previous drive, which started in similar field position, end with a missed 42-yard field goal off the toe of Chris Blewitt, the Panthers capitalized off the turnover with a one-yard touchdown run from James Conner.
Conner’s touchdown run, his 22nd of the season, broke the ACC single-season record and tied the Pitt all-time record that Tony Dorsett set in 1976.
Syracuse started to move the ball on their following drive, but Lafayette Pitts picked off Orange quarterback A.J. Long in the end zone.
Pitt couldn’t do anything with that turnover though as Blewitt missed his second field goal attempt of the day, this time from 44 yards out.
But the Panthers defense continued to play well and the offense made just enough plays.
“We were talking before the game that you don’t want to be the unit that isn’t doing their job,” said Vinopal. “You see what we can do when we execute on both sides of the ball. People were in the spots they were supposed to be in and we got good results.”
Blewitt finally made a field goal, a 46-yarder to extend the Pitt lead to 10-0 and then quarterback Chad Voytik hit sophomore wide receiver Dontez Ford with an 11-yard touchdown pass to extend things to 17-0 late in the first half.
Bam Bradley created the third Panthers’ turnover of the first half when he recorded his first career interception to give Pitt a golden opportunity with under a minute remaining. Pitt couldn’t add to the lead though as Voytik threw an interception in the end zone, his first pick in over three games.
Syracuse got on the board to open up the second half with a one-yard touchdown run from Ron Thompson, but Pitt got some of that back with a Blewitt 31-yard field goal to give Pitt a 20-7 lead after three quarters.
Pitt put the game away on the first play of the quarter when Voytik hit Tyler Boyd with a 49-yard touchdown pass to make it 27-7.
For Boyd, who finished the day with seven catches for 126 yards, it was the fourth game in a row and 10th already of his young career that, he has eclipsed the 100-yard mark. In addition, Boyd went over the 1,000 yard mark on the season. He tied former Panthers WR Larry Fitzgerald’s record of two 1,000 yard seasons by a Pitt wide receiver.
It also marks the third time in Pitt history that they have produced both a 1,000 yard receiver and rusher in the same season.
Conner injured his hip in the first half and did not return, but Chris James picked up most of the slack, gaining 122 yards on 19 carries, his first career 100-yard performance. Pitt had another big day on the ground, gaining 256 yards as team. Meanwhile Syracuse had only 255 yards of total offense.
“I just tried to go in there and do my best,” said James. “I knew I would get an opportunity one day and when James (Conner) went down he told me it was my time to shine. It felt great.”
In addition to Conner, Pitt also lost defensive tackle Darryl Render (ankle) and Bradley (stinger) for the game with injuries.
Voytik had a solid day as well, completing 14-of-20 passes for 189 yards and two touchdowns.
Pitt will try and become bowl eligible next week when they travel to Miami in the regular season finale for both teams.
“It’s a one game playoff,” said Vinopal. ‘We have to come out next week and play our best football.”
Photo Credit: USA Today Sports