Pitt football becomes bowl eligible with victory over Syracuse

By Lauren Kirschman

The Pitt football team reached bowl eligibility on Saturday afternoon with a win over Syracuse… The Pitt football team reached bowl eligibility on Saturday afternoon with a win over Syracuse in the regular season finale.

The Panthers never trailed in the 33-20 Senior Night win over the Orange at Heinz Field and the victory moves Pitt to a bowl-eligible 6-6 record. Syracuse also needed a win to qualify for a bowl bid.

“It [a bowl game] just shows the body of work we put into it,” senior right guard Lucas Nix said. “It pays off in the end…you get another game and you get to spend another few weeks with the family we built here. That means as much to us as anything.”

In the fourth quarter, it looked like the Panthers’ would lose another double-digit lead this season—Pitt jumped out to a 10-point advantage in the first quarter—but outside linebacker Brandon Lindsey and cornerback Antwuan Reed had other plans.

Syracuse had the ball with less than three minutes remaining with Pitt holding a 26-20 advantage.

Lindsey sacked Orange quarterback Ryan Nassib, forcing a fumble, and cornerback Reed scooped up the ball and ran into the end zone. The touchdown boosted Pitt’s lead to 33-20.

Andrew Taglianetti sealed the victory on Syracuse’s next possession with an interception.

Pitt forced six turnovers against the Orange, the first time the Panthers had six forced turnovers since 2002, in a game against Ohio.

“The coaches have been really stressing turnovers in practice,” Reed said. “We just kept going at it. We just tried to go out there and help the team the best we can with defense and special teams.”

The win was particularly important to the Panthers not only to earn bowl eligibility and honor the seniors, but also because defensive coordinator Keith Patterson’s father passed away this week and the team wanted to earn a win for him.

“I’m sure my dad would have something to critique me on today,” Patterson said. “What a great coach, what a great man. What a tremendous man he was and just trying to pass that on to young men and instill the discipline and focus and love for the game.”

Taglianetti said the Panthers knew that a victory would “mean the most to him.”

“He even said to us today that this was the first time he never talked to his dad before a football game,” Taglianetti said. “That kind of hit us deep.”

Pitt’s defense has performed well all season—holding opponents to 22.6 points per game—but recently started forcing more turnovers, a goal the coaches set at the beginning of the season.

“I’ve never seen somebody pressure the quarterback as much as we have and be unable to force and take advantage of opportunities to turn the ball over,” Patterson said.

Redshirt freshman outside linebacker Todd Thomas said it took some time for the Panthers to adjust to the new defense.

“Everybody has to get used to it,” Thomas said. “But now I think everyone has molded together as a defense and learned what they have to do.”

The team’s performance against the Syracuse showed what the Panthers are capable of, Taglianetti said.

“I think we are better than a 6-6 team by far,” he said. “We had a couple tough losses. It doesn’t do anyone any good to…take it the wrong way and be frustrated about what’s going on. We just had to pull together and keep fighting.”

Pitt also had to fight through several injuries this season. Senior tailback Zach Brown and freshman receiver/kick returner Ronald Jones sat out the game against the Orange with a bruised sternum/ribs and a concussion, respectively.

Pitt’s lost five offensive contributors to season-ending injuries this year, including stand-out running back Ray Graham.

The injuries gave several young players the chance to step in and perform, including freshmen Corey Davis and Isaac Bennett. Davis finished with 58 receiving yards, while Bennett added 30 yards on the ground and 41 rushing yards.

Sunseri threw for 179 yards and a touchdown on 14-19 passing. Receiver Alec Lemon led Syracuse with 87 receiving yards. Nassib finished 13-19 for 156 yards and a touchdown.

The Panthers jumped out to a quick lead after Syracuse fumbled the kickoff and Tristan Roberts recovered. Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri completed a pass to tailback Isaac Bennett for a 22-yard touchdown, giving the Panthers a 7-0 advantage.

Lindsey intercepted Orange quarterback Ryan Nassib on the Syracuse’s first drive. The turnover led to a 37-yard Kevin Harper field goal and a 10-0 lead for Pitt.

Nassib answered with a 26-yard touchdown pass to Antwon Bailey to cut Pitt’s lead to three, but Anthony Gonzalez stepped in at quarterback in the wildcat formation for Pitt, rushing 17 yards for a touchdown that gave the Panthers a 17-7 lead at the end of the first quarter.

The Orange struck first in the second quarter with a 22-yard field goal, but Pitt answered with a 36-yard field goal before the break to go into the locker room with a 20-10 lead.

A 10-yard rushing touchdown by Jerome Smith in the third quarter slimmed Pitt’s advantage to 20-17, but Kevin Harper hit two more field goals before the end of the third quarter. Pitt entered the fourth with a 26-17 advantage.

Ross Krautman hit a field goal for Syracuse early in the fourth quarter to make the score 26-20.

“I think this senior group has laid a great foundation,” Todd Graham said. “I’m really thankful for how they embraced me. We gave them everything we had.”