Pitt bowl game in doubt after loss to West Virginia, 21-20

By Lauren Kirschman

The Pitt football team suffered a familiar fate on Friday night, falling to the West Virginia… The Pitt football team suffered a familiar fate on Friday night, falling to the West Virginia Mountaineers after building a two-touchdown lead in the first quarter.

In what might have been the final installment of the Backyard Brawl —at least for the foreseeable future — the Mountaineers took their first lead, 21-20, in the fourth quarter on a one-yard rush into the end zone by running back Shawne Alston.

The one-point advantage held for the remainder of the game. The Panthers also gave up double-digit early leads in losses to Iowa, Notre Dame and Utah this season.

“There’s a one percent chance that if you force [three] turnovers you’re going to end up losing the game,” Pitt safety Andrew Taglianetti said. “It’s frustrating. But I think on defense and special teams we did our job and that’s all I can speak for because those are the only units I’m on.”

With the Mountaineers leaving for the Big 12 Conference and Pitt heading to the Atlantic Coast Conference, the one-point victory could be the final memory in the storied Backyard Brawl rivalry.

West Virginia filed a lawsuit against the Big East in an attempt to leave the Conference next year instead of honoring the 26-month waiting period.

The Panthers had two opportunities to score after West Virginia took the lead, but failed on both. Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri took four sacks on Pitt’s final drive of the game, sealing the Mountaineers comeback and Pitt’s sixth loss of the season.

“We wanted to make sure we were pushing the ball down the field because clock was winding on us and whenever they are rushing three you are trying so hard to make a play back there and trying to extend a play,” Sunseri said. “Sometimes the best thing to do is throw the ball away.”

On second and 18, Sunseri picked up an intentional grounding penalty, which he said was on his mind the next two plays — both of which ended in sacks.

“I think in the back of my head I was thinking about the intentional grounding and I was a little flustered,” he said. “But I got to make sure that if I vacate the pocket…I can throw it past the line of scrimmage and it’s just an incomplete pass, clock stops and we can kind of regroup.”

The Mountaineers sacked Sunseri a total of 10 times.

“You can’t take sacks the last drive of the game, you got to be able to get the ball out of your hands and get it over to people and we just weren’t able to,” Sunseri said.

On their second-to-last drive of the game, the Panthers got the ball back with 6:30 remaining in the game. But after moving the ball to the West Virginia 46, Sunseri took a sack on third down, forcing the Panthers to punt and return the ball to the Mountaineers with 2:30 remaining.

Pitt needed to win out to guarantee a winning season and a bowl game. Every team that finishes over .500 must be selected for a bowl game before any 6-6 squad. The Panthers need to defeat Syracuse in their final game of the season on Dec. 3 to reach 6-6.

“Everybody has their head down,” Pitt running back Isaac Bennett said. “It’s sad because we don’t like losing at all. We’re all competitors and the loss hurts.”

West Virginia cut Pitt’s lead to 14-7 in the second quarter on a pass from quarterback Geno Smith to Stedman Bailey for a 63-yard touchdown.

Still, the Panthers had the opportunity to extend their lead by two touchdowns after the Mountaineers fumbled two punts — setting Pitt up deep in West Virginia territory.

But Pitt couldn’t reach the end zone and settled for field goals on both occasions.

“It was knock-down, drag-out; everything that you want,” Pitt head coach Todd Graham said. “It’s really disappointing for us. We had the opportunities, but we just didn’t capitalize.”

West Virginia’s Ishmael Banks fumbled the first punt late in the second quarter. Taglianetti scooped up the ball for the Panthers, leading to a 30-yard Kevin Harper field goal and 17-7 halftime advantage for Pitt.

Tavon Austin fumbled another punt for West Virginia early in the third quarter and Harper kicked another field goal to give Pitt a 20-7 advantage.

West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen credited his defense for holding Pitt to three points both times.

“[The defense] did a tremendous job, especially after turnovers, going right back out after they’d stopped them and holding them to field goals,” Holgorsen said.

On the Mountaineers’ next drive, West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith found receiver Tyler Urban for a 16-yard pickup in the third quarter and then running back Shawne Alston rushed eight yards into the end zone, and with the extra point, cut Pitt’s lead to six points, 20-14.

“I wish we could have gotten more points out there on…those fumbles that we got,” Taglianetti said. “It’s frustrating. I believe in those guys on the other side.”

The Panthers suffered several key injuries during the game, including starting running back Zach Brown suffered a bruised sternum and his backup Bennett suffered a concussion. Bennett returned to the game.

Pitt wide receiver Devin Street also left the game after taking a hard hit on Pitt’s second to last drive.

“You got to make sure that those guys behind you understand what’s going on and what’s expected of them,” Sunseri said of playing with back-ups. “And obviously they made a few mistakes, I made a few mistakes, everyone makes mistakes but you got to persevere.”

The Panther defense played well, holding the usually high-powered Mountaineer offense scoreless in the first quarter and to seven points in the first half. The defense forced three turnovers and put the offense in a position to succeed.

“I thought our defense was stellar against probably the best offense we’ve played all year long,” Graham said. “They played unbelievably.”

Still, Taglianetti said the defense could have done better.

“We gave up 21 points. I don’t think that’s good enough,” he said. “I thought in the first half we really did a great job shutting them down. Coach Holgorsen did a great job on the second half adjustment. We make a couple big plays out there and I might be there a little happier.”

The Panthers came out strong in the first half, scoring a touchdown on a bizarre first drive. Harper missed a field goal, but an illegal block penalty set the Panthers up with a first and ten at the West Virginia 11-yard line.

After Sunseri picked up a first down on a fourth and one from the Mountaineer 2-yard line, Brown found the end zone on the next play to put the Panthers ahead 7-0 after the extra point.

A 22-yard West Virginia punt set Pitt up on the 48-yard line for its next scoring drive. Sunseri found wide receiver Devin Street for 20 yards before Bennett picked up seven more yards on the ground.

Sunseri hit Hubie Graham for a 14-yard gain, then Bennett ran the ball two consecutive times—the second run a 6-yard dash for a touchdown.

“To hold West Virginia to 21 points is a great job by our defense,” Sunseri said. “Our offense let down our defense.”