Editor’s Picks: Greatest Games of 2016


Pitt running back James Conner rushed for 117 yards and two touchdowns in the Panthers’ 42-39 victory over Penn State. Jeff Ahearn | Senior Staff Photographer

By Steve Rotstein | Sports Editor

No. 3. — Sept. 10 – Pitt 42, Penn State 39

With 69,983 people in attendance — a record for a Pittsburgh sporting event — this game’s fame was set to reach epic proportions before the players even stepped on the field.

The pregame atmosphere at Heinz Field on Sept. 10 was teeming with energy. After 16 years of waiting, fans of both Pitt and Penn State had turned out in full force to see the renewal of the heated and historic in-state rivalry.

James Conner — Pitt’s 235-pound cancer-survivor running back — took his first handoff on Pitt’s second play from scrimmage and steamrolled the first Penn State defender he could find, 205-pound safety Marcus Allen, for a 24-yard gain.

The stadium erupted, not just in excitement but in astonishment at what Conner had just pulled off less than a year after recovering from a torn MCL and Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The tone for the game was set.

Conner bulldozed his way to a similar 23-yard run later in the drive to set up fullback George Aston’s 15-yard touchdown catch. By the time Aston punched in his second touchdown from one yard out to give Pitt a 28-7 lead, the game was turning into a rout.

But it was still early in the second quarter, with more than 40 minutes left in the game. Quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley brought the Nittany Lions back into the game, and, five Barkley touchdowns later, they had the ball down 42-39 with a chance to tie or take the lead late in the fourth quarter.

Pitt fans will never forget what happened next — and Penn State fans will forever wish they could.

McSorley dropped a perfectly thrown deep ball into wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton’s hands for a would-be 56-yard touchdown. Except Hamilton — who had burned Pitt cornerback Ryan Lewis to get wide open down the sideline — forgot to catch it.

The Nittany Lions then picked up 34 yards on fourth-and-16 to stay alive and move within range of a game-tying field goal. But McSorley went for the win, and Lewis made no mistake this time, leaping through the air and pulling down a game-sealing interception in the back of the end zone.

From the Panther Pitt all the way to the nosebleed seats, fans jumped and danced in jubilation as Lit’s 1999 single “My Own Worst Enemy” blared through the Heinz Field speakers. The rivalry was back, and the fun was just getting started.

Nika Markovic served a crucial ace in Pitt's 35-33 set win against North Carolina State. Jeff Ahearn | Senior Staff Photographer
Nika Markovic served a crucial ace in Pitt’s 35-33 set win against North Carolina State. Jeff Ahearn | Senior Staff Photographer

No. 2 — Oct. 28 – Pitt 3, North Carolina State 2

When the Pitt volleyball team met up with the North Carolina State Wolfpack inside the Fitzgerald Field House on Oct. 28, the Panthers were reeling. They held a 15-7 overall record, but were only 6-4 in ACC play and had lost four of their last six matches. Securing the team’s first NCAA Tournament bid since 2004 seemed like a lost cause, especially if Pitt fell to NC State.

Mistakes nearly doomed the Panthers, who made 11 errors and lost the first set, 25-21, despite tallying five more kills than the Wolfpack. Pitt would respond to take the second set by a commanding 25-16 score, only to drop the third set, 25-15.

Needing to win the final two sets to avoid another devastating defeat, the Panthers fell into a 6-0 hole to start the fourth. But Pitt didn’t quit, as junior Mariah Bell helped bring the team back to within 17-15, only to fall behind 24-18 after another stretch of errors.

Facing game, set and match point, the Panthers would need to win six points in a row just to have a chance at winning — so they called on senior Maria Genitsaridi.

Genitsaridi calmly stepped to the service line and began hammering away. One by one, Pitt inched its way back in the game. By the time Genitsaridi’s service run was over, she had steered the Panthers to seven straight points, giving them a 25-24 lead.

Normally, 25 points is enough to win the set, but in volleyball, you have to win by two — and NC State was still fighting to dash Pitt’s comeback hopes. The teams went back and forth, trading points all the way into the 30s, eventually knotting at 33.

Nika Markovic then served an ace to bring up set point for the Panthers, and an error by the Wolfpack clinched Pitt’s 35-33 set victory.

With the teams tied 2-2, whoever got to 15 points first in the decisive fifth set would win the match. The Panthers fell behind, 6-3, but put together another comeback to tie the match at 13. NC State then called a timeout, but it backfired, as the Wolfpack made consecutive errors to give Pitt a 15-13 set victory and remarkable 3-2 match win.

The win sparked a late-season surge that saw the Panthers win 10 of their final 11 matches, enough to earn the team an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament after years of coming up just short.

First-year linebacker Saleem Brightwell returns an interception 70 yards in the fourth quarter of the Panthers' 43-42 win against Clemson. Mike Williams (7) made a shoestring tackle to prevent a touchdown. Courtesy of Pete Madia/Pitt Athletics
First-year linebacker Saleem Brightwell returns an interception 70 yards in the fourth quarter of the Panthers’ 43-42 win against Clemson. Mike Williams (7) made a shoestring tackle to prevent a touchdown. Courtesy of Pete Madia/Pitt Athletics

No. 1 — Nov. 12 – Pitt 43, No. 2 Clemson 42

In the aftermath of Pitt’s thrilling victory over Penn State, no one was thinking the Panthers’ most unforgettable football game of the season was yet to come.

Pitt ventured into Death Valley on Nov. 12, as a 21-point underdog against the No. 2 team in the country — the eventual National Champion Clemson Tigers. The Panthers were riding a two-game losing streak, the Tigers a 21-game home winning streak.

Oh, and Clemson had arguably the best player in the nation running its offense, quarterback Deshaun Watson.

The two-time Heisman Trophy finalist and National Championship Game Offensive MVP carved up Pitt’s secondary for an ACC-record 580 yards and three touchdowns, but the Panthers also picked Watson off three times — none more crucial than the last one.

With the Tigers holding a 42-34 lead late in the fourth quarter and threatening to put the game away with another score, Pitt linebacker Saleem Brightwell undercut a Clemson receiver’s route and made the first interception of his career, returning it 70 yards all the way to the Tigers’ 30-yard line.

Three plays later, Conner planted Clemson linebacker Dorian O’Daniel into the dirt with one of his signature stiff arms, rumbling for a 20-yard touchdown run.

The Panthers’ two-point conversion attempt failed, leaving them down 42-40. But senior middle linebacker Matt Galambos made a game-saving stop on Tigers running back Wayne Gallman on fourth-and-1, giving Pitt one more chance to shock the world.

Quarterback Nathan Peterman led the Panthers on a six-play, 34-yard drive, setting up kicker Chris Blewitt — who had already missed a field goal and extra point — for a 48-yard field goal attempt with 12 seconds left.

With Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi and his players kneeling beside each other and holding hands, Blewitt’s kick sailed just inside the left upright with plenty of distance. Pitt emerged with a 43-42 win, handing the Tigers — who would go on to defeat No. 1 Alabama 35-31 in an equally exciting National Championship game — their only loss of the 2016-2017 season.