Finals week is one of the most stressful times of the year. From all-night studying to last-minute panicking, looming finals can be a college student’s worst nightmare.
During this time, it’s helpful to keep some perspective. Sure, you might be facing some pressure to succeed. But does it compare to the pressure Pitt men’s basketball felt when it earned a No. 1 seed in the 2011 NCAA Tournament, only to collapse in the second round? And you might feel a little embarrassed about earning a lackluster final grade — but at least you won’t have embarrassed yourself on a national stage, as Pitt football did in the 2015 Armed Forces Bowl.
These are just a few moments among many that gave Pitt fans some premature gray hairs. This article will revisit times when the Panthers made us want to scream at the television or break down and cry in the stands — by the time it’s over, hopefully, you’ll realize that finals week pales in comparison to these stress-inducing games.
Blown 21-point lead in 2015 Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl
Pitt’s 2014-15 football season was a mixed bag — the Panthers started the year with a bang, beating Delaware 62-0 before suffering two separate three-game losing streaks. They finished the regular season on a positive note by beating ACC foes Syracuse and Miami, but head coach Paul Chryst resigned to coach Wisconsin on Dec. 18, leaving Pitt without a head coach entering its Jan. 2 bowl game.
Still, the 6-6 Panthers entered their matchup against 7-5 Houston in the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl with a golden opportunity to break .500 and finish the season with a winning record. With offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph stepping in as interim head coach, Pitt looked thoroughly in control through three-and-a-half quarters, gaining a 21-point advantage over the Cougars thanks to two rushing touchdowns from then-sophomore James Conner.
A Chris Blewitt field goal put the Panthers up 34-13 with 6:14 left in the game, all but ensuring a Pitt victory in blowout fashion. Most fans might have just turned the game off and gone on with their days, but those who stuck around for the final minutes witnessed one of the worst choke jobs in Pitt sports history.
To be clear, Houston’s chances of a comeback involved a minuscule margin for error. The Cougars would have to complete three lightning-quick drives and recover two onside kicks, then convert a successful onside kick. The chances of any one of those things happening was unlikely; the chance of all three happening was a borderline mathematical impossibility. But the Panthers somehow found a way to let it happen.
First, Houston conducted a six-play, 83-yard drive to make it 34-20. Then they recovered an onside kick to gain possession back, scoring another touchdown on a fourth-and-13, 29-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Greg Ward Jr. to make it a one-possession game with 1:58 remaining. Still, all Pitt had to do was recover the next onside kick and run the clock out.
But Houston kicker Ty Cummings pulled off the unthinkable, performing another successful onside kick for the Cougars to get the ball back yet again, this time trailing 34-27. With great starting field position, Ward Jr. led a quick four-play, 57-yard scoring drive against Pitt’s visibly shaken defense. With the chance to tie the game with an extra point or win with a two-point conversion, the momentum-filled Cougars chose the latter, and Ward Jr. completed another pass to seal the Houston victory, 35-34. It was the largest fourth-quarter comeback in bowl history, and one of the lowest moments in Pitt football history.
Last-second loss to Butler in 2011 NCAA Tournament
Pitt men’s basketball achieved one of its greatest seasons in program history during 2010-11, going 28-6 to earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Panthers handled No. 16 UNC-Asheville 74-51 in the first round, setting up a matchup with the 2010 runner-up No. 8 Butler Bulldogs in the Round of 32.
Following a back-and-forth battle throughout, Butler took a 70-69 lead on a layup with 2.2 seconds left, dealing what should’ve been a fatal blow to the Panthers. But Butler guard Shelvin Mack pressured Pitt guard Gilbert Brown a little too close on the inbound, committing an absentminded foul that sent Brown to the foul line with an opportunity to win the game.
With 1.4 seconds on the clock, Brown made the first free throw to tie but couldn’t convert on the second one to take the lead. The ball fell into the hands of Butler forward Matt Howard, and Pitt junior Nasir Robinson inexplicably fouled him with 0.8 seconds left. Howard stepped to the line and made the game-winning free throw give Butler the upset victory, 71-70.
Pitt’s last-minute roller-coaster ride from loser to winner and back to loser was a heartbreaking gut-punch for Panther fans who finally thought their team had exorcised its tournament demons. I can’t speak for others, but 12-year-old me was certainly, as a fictional anchorman once said, “in a glass case of emotion.”
42-39 win over Penn State in 2016
Sept. 10, 2016, is remembered by Panther fans as a sweet, joyous day — the day Pitt football beat its in-state rival Penn State in the first renewal of the Keystone Clash. While many view this game positively in retrospect, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t incredibly stressful to witness in real time.
As with Houston in 2015, Pitt got out to a sizeable advantage early on, leading Penn State 28-7 with 11:54 left in the second quarter. But a late flurry of Nittany Lion touchdowns saw them close the gap down to 42-39 with 3:56 remaining, and Penn State’s offense took over on its own 29-yard line with a chance to lead a game-winning drive.
On second-and-6, Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley dropped back and confidently chucked a deep bomb down the right sideline. At that moment, every Pitt fan’s heart sunk to their stomach when they saw that wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton had beaten his defender by about five steps, giving him an easy touchdown. It was over. The Panthers had once again blown a meaningful game in the fourth quarter.
But by sheer fortune, the typically sure-handed Hamilton couldn’t come up with what would have been the game-winning touchdown. The home crowd at Heinz Field let out a roar, followed by the nervous jitters that come with knowing your team caught a lucky break. Four plays later, McSorley threw an interception that officially gave Pitt the win. For once, the Panthers actually came out on the right side of a disastrous situation.