In spite of the door closing on an opportunity to represent the Coastal Division in the ACC title game, the Pitt Panthers still had plenty on the line facing a Louisville team that came to Heinz Field winners of six of their last seven contests.
The Panthers (8-3) responded with a 42-point first half outburst on their way to a decisive 45-34 victory over the visiting Cardinals (6-5) of Louisville. Although the Panthers were far from perfect on the day, but Panthers head coach Pat Narduzzi was certainly happy with the final outcome.
“Well, obviously our kids are excited about win number eight, which is just another step forward,” Naduzzi said. “I kind of talked to the guys at the half about how we haven’t played in a position all year where we’ve been ahead at the half, and how were we going to respond. I think our kids were about as excited as I was as far as how we played that second half. It’s win number eight, we’ll take it any way we can get it.”
Dogged by slow starts all season, the Panthers took advantage of a white hot Nate Peterman who completed 15-of-20 first-half passes for 193 yards and four touchdowns charging out to a commanding 42-24 halftime lead.
Qadree Ollison finished with 153 yards and a touchdown, becoming only the fifth Pitt freshman to eclipse the 1,000-yard plateau in school history, while Tyler Boyd added 11 catches for 103 yards and a touchdown. Defensive end Ejuan Price was dominant for the Panthers defense with five sacks and six tackles for loss on the day.
Narduzzi made it clear that Price’s performance was special after the game.
“When you get five sacks in a game, you’re doing something special,” Narduzzi said. “Early in the first quarter I was like, ‘they can’t block Ejaun.’ That’s a giant man’s game right there … I’m proud of him.”
After an early field goal gave the Cardinals a 3-0 advantage, the Panthers responded with an impressive nine-play 87-yard drive that included runs of 26 and 24 yards for Ollison and Boyd, respectively, along with a 10-yard pass to freshman sensation Jordan Whitehead that set up a 2-yard touchdown dive by Ollison to make the score 7-3 with just more than four minutes left in quarter.
The Cardinals wasted little time taking back the lead after a kickoff return to their own 48 set up the offense for a quick four-play, 52-yard touchdown drive that ended with a nifty 29-yard catch-and-run by Keith Towbridge to make the score 10-7.
Pitt would score three consecutive touchdowns in response, all thanks to the arm of Peterman, who would first connect with Boyd a 35-yard touchdown strike after a 19-yard Louisville punt gave the Panthers the ball deep in Cardinals’ territory. After a quick three-and-out by the Cardinals and a poor punt that gave the Panthers the ball at their own 48, Peterman first hit Boyd for 23 yards and then found Dontez Ford for 32 yards and his second touchdown pass over a three minute span.
Peterman would add two more touchdown strikes in the final minutes of the half, both to fullback George Aston from four yards out. Aston’s second TD catch would push the Panthers lead to 35-17.
Peterman’s huge first half was an example of finding a rhythm and running with it.
“They told me it was four (touchdowns) in the second quarter,” Peterman said. “The guys were doing a great job of getting open.”
With time winding down in the first half, the Pitt defense would come up with a huge play to push the lead to 42-17 when cornerback Avonte Maddox intercepted Cardinals quarterback Kyle Bollin and returned it 30 yards for a pick-six.
Louisville would make a quarterback change after the Maddox interception, replacing Bollin with Lamar Jackson and Jackson would hit Jamari Staples for a 49-yard touchdown just before half to cut the Panther lead to 42-24.
The second half was the polar opposite for the Panthers, as the offense struggled to find the groove that they had earlier in the game and this allowed the Cardinals to try and make a comeback.
Jackson added a 2-yard touchdown run with 12:55 remaining in the fourth quarter to get the deficit down to eight at 42-34, but the Panther defense stiffened late and Chris Blewitt’s 18-yard field goal would seal the victory.
Despite the Cardinals making the game close late in the second half, Maddox had faith that the Panther defense would close the game out.
“We always talk about finishing,” Maddox said. “You to finish the game to win the game, so that’s what we talk about, that’s what we need to keep doing for the rest of the season.”
The Panthers will have a short week to prepare for the Miami Hurricanes as they look to earn their ninth win of the season the day after Thanksgiving at Heinz Field. Kickoff is set for noon.
Photo courtesy of @GoPittFootball