Pitt can't rally past Syracuse
SYRACUSE, N.Y. — With its running game going nowhere Friday night in the Carrier Dome, Pitt turned to its defense and quarterback Tino Sunseri.
It almost worked.
But a series of sacks and penalties in the fourth quarter stonewalled Pitt's comeback attempt, and Syracuse escaped with a 14-13 Big East victory.
“It's the same story all the time,” said wide receiver Devin Street, a starter for the past three seasons. “We are our own worst enemy.”
Pitt's defense didn't allow a touchdown after the first Syracuse possession, and the Panthers (2-3, 0-2) entered the fourth quarter down by only a point.
But the offense committed three false-start penalties in one series in front of a noisy crowd of 40,394, and Sunseri was sacked three times — twice after moving to the Syracuse 17 with five minutes left.
The action took a dramatic turn when freshman tight end J.P. Holtz caught a pass from Sunseri and lowered his shoulder into safety Shamarko Thomas, whose helmet flew to the ground. The crowd became quiet while Thomas lay on the turf for several seconds as players from both teams and medical personnel huddled around him. Thomas eventually stood up and walked off under his own power.
When play resumed, Sunseri hit receiver Mike Shanahan for a 24-yard gain to the 17, but Syracuse (2-3, 1-0) quickly regained momentum with Pitt in field-goal range.
Sunseri was called for intentional grounding and then was sacked on a blitz by cornerback Brandon Reddish. An incomplete pass led to a punt, and Syracuse ran out the clock.
“They made more plays and won the game,” Pitt coach Paul Chryst said. “We did enough stuff to beat ourselves. I loved their effort. I loved the way they played. And yet you look back at that, and there are moments when you can win that game.”
While moving into fourth on Pitt's all-time passing list, Sunseri completed 25 of 33 passes for 319 yards. He passed John Congemi and Rod Rutherford on the all-time list with 6,765 yards. He trails only Alex Van Pelt, Dan Marino and Tyler Palko.
Street had a career-high 10 receptions for 130 yards.
Chryst gave repeated chances to running back Ray Graham, but he gained only 57 yards on 24 carries. Freshman running back Rushel Shell was limited by a back injury that has plagued him since training camp.
Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib, who came into the game as the No. 6 passer in the nation, threw for only 185 yards and was picked off by cornerback K'Waun Williams in the end zone in the first half.
Syracuse scored 14 unanswered points in the first quarter on a 1-yard run by running back Adonis Ameen-Moore and a 52-yard fumble return by linebacker Dyshawn Davis.
But Pitt used a strong passing game to cut into the lead on a 1-yard run by Graham in the second quarter and Kevin Harper's 40-yard field goal with 22 seconds left.
Harper missed from 42 yards in the first half and added a 27-yarder in the third quarter for Pitt's only second-half points.
Syracuse had no trouble slicing through the Pitt defense for 70 yards in eight plays on its opening possession. Ameen-Moore scored on his first carry of the season.
Syracuse starting running back Jerome Smith gashed Pitt on consecutive 7-yard runs to open the drive, and Nassib completed all four of his pass attempts for 51 yards. He finished the half 12 of 17 for 133 yards and an interception.
Pitt moved into scoring position on its second drive, but Graham lost 2 yards on third-and-3, and Harper missed a 42-yard attempt.
The passing game was working well in that sequence, with Sunseri completing three passes for 55 yards.
But when Pitt reached the Syracuse 30, Chryst called for three running plays by Graham, leading to Harper's fourth misfire in eight attempts this season from beyond the 29.
Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7997.