Pitt gains bowl eligibility with narrow win over Syracuse
SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Aaron Donald nodded, and that was all Paul Chryst had to see.
Funny how a player who causes so much chaos can settle his coach's concerns with such a simple act.
Pitt (6-5, 3-4) became bowl eligible for the sixth consecutive season Saturday, defeating Syracuse, 17-16, at the Carrier Dome while riding atop the broad back of their star defensive tackle.
Donald, who is a strong candidate for five national awards, recorded nine tackles — 3 1⁄2 for a loss to give him a nation-leading 26 — and blocked an extra-point try that was the difference in the game.
Chryst, who rarely praises his players, stepped outside himself briefly to talk about the effect Donald had on Pitt's second victory in the past three weeks.
“Your eyes go to him, and he sees it and he gives you the nod,” Chryst said. “And more often than not, he comes through. That's the mark of a great one.
“I think right now he is playing at that level. He impacts the game in such a big way. It's pretty special to be around.”
Despite Donald's efforts, Chryst admitted the victory wasn't a work of art, and there were many examples to prove it:
• Pitt had almost no running game, but somehow Isaac Bennett outran the Syracuse defense to the end zone for the decisive 5-yard touchdown on the last play of the third quarter.
• A rebuilt offensive line tried all day — succeeding and failing at different times — to neutralize Syracuse's from-all-angles pass rush. Quarterback Tom Savage was sacked three times, and had trouble getting up after one especially hard hit in the third quarter. But he completed an 11-yard pass to tight end J.P. Holtz on the next snap.
• Pitt's defense, which has played well at times this season but struggled mightily at others, allowed Syracuse to take a 6-0 lead on Jerome Smith's 36-yard run on its first possession. But the Orange's offense never reached the red zone after that.
• Senior wide receiver Devin Street missed most of the game with ankle and elbow injuries, but freshman wide receiver Tyler Boyd and tight ends Manasseh Garner and Holtz combined for 21 catches for 182 yards. Garner's 7-yard reception and dive into the pylon in the second quarter was Pitt's only other touchdown.
• Big turnovers — a fumble by punt returner Kevin Weatherpoon and an interception by Syracuse linebacker Luke Arciniega that deflected off Boyd's hands — almost doomed the Panthers. But the defense stepped up and forced Syracuse to settle for 41-yard field-goal attempts.
Ryan Norton hit the first one in the second quarter but missed in the fourth. Then, Syracuse got nothing on its last possession, even after starting at its 44.
That's the drive where Chryst saved disaster with 1:03 left. With Syracuse lining up for a 53-yard field-goal attempt it had no intention of trying, Chryst quickly called timeout. Good thing. Holder Charley Loeb took the snap and threw too late to tight end Kendall Moore, who was lined up on the sideline with no Pitt player near him. It looked liked the makings of an easy touchdown.
Chryst refused to take the credit. “Roc called it,” he said, referring to the Pitt mascot. But Donald said the call came from the bench.
“I'm happy he did,” Donald said. “The guy was wide open out there.”
The game marked the first time since 2010 — the year former coach Dave Wannstedt was fired — that Pitt has earned its sixth victory with one left to play.
Turning point in the program? Chryst was not ready to go there.
“The good and bad, this is who we are right now,” he said. “We are going to rally around it. We need everyone.
“We still can play better and that's a good thing. We can play a lot better. But the guys fought and fought to the end.”