Panthers thwarted in Thursday night throwdown against VT, 39-36


James Conner (24) scored three touchdowns Thursday night versus Virginia Tech | Theo Schwarz, Senior Staff Photographer

Pitt’s chances at an ACC Coastal Division title were likely shattered during a rare Thursday night game at Heinz Field.

In a high-scoring affair typical of this season, the Panthers (5-3, 2-2 ACC) lost their first home game of the year, falling to the No. 25 Virginia Tech Hokies (6-2, 4-1 ACC) in a nationally televised matchup, 39-36.

“What can you say, [we] fought,” said Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi. “We left too many plays out on the field.”

VT did what other offenses have done against Pitt all season — utilized its passing attack on the opening drive of the game. Two throws from quarterback Jerod Evans to wide receiver Isaiah Ford netted 51 yards, taking the Hokies deep into Pitt territory.

Pitt held VT to a field goal, but Quadree Henderson fumbled on the ensuing kickoff, giving the ball back to the Hokies at the Panthers’ 19-yard line. Pitt’s defense again limited VT to a Joey Slye field goal to give the Hokies a 6-0 lead.

The Panthers committed another turnover on their next possession. Nathan Peterman found Henderson over the middle for a big gain, but a penalty on guard Dorian Johnson wiped it out. Peterman then fired a third-down pass right into the hands of VT safety Mook Reynolds for an interception.

Pitt’s defense came up with another big stop, forcing the Hokies to forego points with a big third down sack by Quintin Wirginis and Shakir Soto.

After a three-and-out by Pitt, the Panthers appeared to swing the momentum in their favor as Wirginis picked off a pass on a third-down throw by Evans. But an offside call on safety Dennis Briggs negated it.

Linebacker Mike Caprara, who returned after a four-game absence, said he had to shake off defensive penalties throughout the night.

“You can’t deny [penalties] are frustrating,” Caprara said. “But when you put it in perspective, personally, I only control the things I can control. That’s all the you can do. Move on.”

VT made its way into the red zone once again on a circus catch by Ford in which the ball careened between him and defensive back Phillipie Motley before he snatched it away. Once again, Pitt’s defense held strong, stopping Evans on a third down. The Hokies settled for another chip-shot field goal, leading 9-0 with 13:08 left in the first half.

After more than 20 minutes of ineptitude, Pitt’s offense gathered itself. Two big first down conversions from Peterman to wide receiver Jester Weah and a 37-yard completion to Henderson set the Panthers up near the goal line, where Pitt offensive coordinator Matt Canada pulled out some trickery.

Peterman handed the ball off to wide receiver Tre Tipton, who then waited and lobbed it back to Peterman. Pitt’s quarterback caught the pass and absorbed a huge hit for an 11-yard gain, setting up a six-yard touchdown run by James Conner to get the Panthers on the board at 9-7 with 4:14 remaining in the half.

On the Hokies’ next drive, Evans threw for 47 yards and ran for 10 more, capping it off with an 11-yard touchdown pass to tight end Chris Cunningham.

But Pitt grabbed the momentum right back as Peterman connected with tight end Scott Orndoff for a 71-yard gain. Conner scored his second touchdown of the game from one yard out, leaving the score at 16-14 heading into halftime.

The Panthers continued to surge on offense as they opened the second half with a long drive as Conner scored his third touchdown of the evening three plays later to give Pitt its first lead, 21-16.

Conner finished the contest with 19 rushes for 141 yards and three scores but still felt he could have done more.

“I’ve got to get faster,” Conner said. “I need to make people miss in open space. I’ve got to get a lot better.”

VT drove down the field and again entered Pitt’s red zone. The Panthers’ defense recorded another big stop on Evans, who appeared to be in serious pain as trainers helped him off the field after a Wirginis tackle.

Slye then nailed a pair of field goals on the Hokies’ next two drives to give VT a 22-21 lead with 2:44 left in the third quarter.

After another Pitt three-and-out, Evans completed three straight passes before VT scored on a two-yard run by Marshawn Williams, giving the Hokies a 29-21 lead with seven seconds remaining in the third quarter.

Conner broke loose for two huge rushes on Pitt’s next drive before Peterman handed the ball off to offensive lineman Brian O’Neill, who dove past the goal line for his second touchdown of the season. A shovel pass to Conner for the two-point conversion evened the game up at 29-29 with 13:25 remaining in regulation.

VT drove down the field on its next possession, picking on the Panthers’ true freshman cornerback Damar Hamlin. Evans complete two passes to 6-foot-7 wide receiver Bucky Hodges for 47 yards, but the Hokies settled for Slye’s school-record sixth field goal to take a 32-29 lead with 9:39 remaining in the game.

Narduzzi said Hamlin, who made his Pitt debut Thursday, will continue to see action.

“He’s going to continue to get reps, and he’s going to play,” Narduzzi said. “With our corner situation, we need him out there.”

The Hokies took advantage of Pitt’s stalling offense and a bad punt, needing just three plays and 57 yards to find the end zone on Evans’ 16-yard touchdown pass to Ford. Panthers safety Terrish Webb dropped an interception on the second play of the drive that would have given Pitt the ball back, but instead VT led by 10 with 7:20 left.

Even with fans heading for the exits, the Panthers continued to put up a fight. Peterman led a seven-play, 90-yard drive, finding Weah in the end zone for a touchdown and narrowing the deficit to 39-36 with 2:31 left in the game.

But Narduzzi decided not to onside kick, betting on his defense to make a stop.

“We thought we could get a three-and-out,” Narduzzi said. “I don’t regret it at all.”

The gamble didn’t pay off. Jordan Whitehead missed a tackle on Cam Phillips on a critical third-and-1, allowing a first down that effectively ended the game.

Pitt falls to 5-3 on the season and 2-2 in ACC play. The Panthers will return to the field next Saturday in Miami against the Miami Hurricanes. The ACC has not yet announced a time for the game.