Pitt sputters, loses to Utah 26-14

By Lauren Kirschman

A pair of touchdowns in the first quarter could not carry the Pitt football team Saturday, as… A pair of special teams touchdowns in the first quarter couldn’t carry the Pitt football team Saturday as Utah quickly overtook the Panthers’ meager offense for a 26-14 win.

Utah scored 23 unanswered points and grabbed two late interceptions to defeat the Panthers at Heinz Field after falling behind 14-3 in the first quarter.

After a 44-point performance against South Florida, Pitt’s offense has only scored one touchdown over the past two games, causing the Panthers to pick up consecutive losses to Rutgers and Utah despite solid performances from their defense and special teams.

On Saturday, Pitt’s offense didn’t reach the red zone or score a point in the game as special teams scored both Panther touchdowns. The team finished with a total of 120 offensive yards.

“We absolutely did not execute anything in the passing game at all,” Pitt head coach Todd Graham said. He called the loss to Utah (2-3, 0-3 Pac-12) an “absolutely dismal performance” by the offense.

In the first quarter, Buddy Jackson returned a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown and Antwuan Reed returned a blocked punt from Andrew Taglianetti for 10 yards into the end zone to make the score 14-3.The Panthers (3-4, 1-1 Big East) didn’t score again.

Graham said he thought the Panthers learned to effectively execute his no-huddle system in their 44-17 victory over South Florida on Sept. 29. But whatever strides Pitt made offensively against the Bulls were erased in a 34-10 loss to Rutgers last week and Saturday’s defeat.

“To go from 500 yards of offense [versus South Florida] to 120 yards today, I didn’t think that was possible,” Graham said.

Graham said the Panthers showed that they can effectively execute the system in their game against South Florida.

“It’s [the coaches’] job to teach the system and obviously we’re not doing that,” Graham said. “It doesn’t look like a system at all.”

Quarterbacks Tino Sunseri and Trey Anderson combined for just 50 yards on nine complete passes.

The defense did its best to keep the  Panthers in the game, finishing with 17 tackles for loss. Pitt defensive tackle Chas Alecxih said it can be frustrating for the defense to play well and then watch the offense struggle.

Sunseri and Anderson went a combined 9-30 with two interceptions, and were sacked six times. Pitt’s quarterbacks were unavailable for comment after the game.

Running back Ray Graham, the nation’s leading rusher entering the game, carried the ball 12 times for 46 yards.

“I kind of got frustrated out there,” Graham said. “Every way I wanted to go, somebody was there.”

Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said the Utes took the run away from Graham by “gang-tackling him.”

“You have to be able to hold up on the outside and cut corners and we didn’t give up much in the throw game … you have to cover and do things correctly in the secondary and we did that,” he said.

Utah right end Derrick Shelby said the team knew it had to limit Ray Graham coming in.

“The last couple of weeks, we have been kind of coming out of a lull with turnovers and things like that,” Shelby said. “This week we wanted to show that [we] could fight the whole way through. We had a game plan and we believed in it.”

Both Anderson and Sunseri saw time in Saturday’s game, with the backup Anderson playing the majority of the third and fourth quarters. Todd Graham said the first time Anderson entered the game early in the first quarter was planned.

After that, Graham was just looking for a way to jump-start the offense.

“We put [Anderson] back in the second half just trying to get something going at all,” Graham said. “Obviously neither quarterback played very good at all. Very, very bad offensive performance.”

Whittingham credited his defense for the win.

“They played hard from start to finish [and] they played smart and did very good things,” he said. “We have a lot of work to do on offense and that is very evident.”

Utah finished with 251 total yards. Quarterback Jon Hays completed 14 of 23 passes for 127 yards and a touchdown. John White led the Utes on the ground with 185 yards on 35 carries.

Both the Panther defense and the special teams played well enough for the Panthers to win, something Graham acknowledged in the postgame press conference.

“The things we accomplished defensively no one is really noticing because of how bad we are playing offensively the last two weeks,” he said.

Utah scored on its first drive after White rushed for 21 yards to the Pitt 4-yard line. The Utes couldn’t get into the end zone, but Coleman Petersen made a 23-yard field goal to put Utah ahead 3-0.

Pitt answered when Jackson returned the kickoff for a touchdown. It was the first kickoff Pitt returned for a touchdown since Lowell Robinson ran one back on Oct. 13, 2006.

Taglianetti blocked the punt that led to Pitt’s second touchdown after Utah’s next drive. The Panthers haven’t blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown since Sept. 28, 1991, when Billy Davis returned a punt for 13 yards.

The Utes made a 34-yard field goal with 3:15 left in the second quarter. Then, with 2:07 remaining in the half, Utah quarterback Jon Hays found Luke Matthews for a 33-yard touchdown, despite being hurried by Pitt outside linebacker Brandon Lindsey.

On the first drive of the second half, Utah used a 37-yard John White run to set up a 39-yard field goal to take a 16-13 lead. Petersen added a 45-yard field goal in the fourth quarter.

Late in the fourth quarter, Shelby intercepted Anderson and returned the ball 23 yards for a touchdown to make the score 26-14 and seal the victory for Utah.

Conroy Black intercepted Anderson again on Pitt’s final possession of the game.

Todd Graham said he expects injured outside linebacker Todd Thomas and right guard Lucas Nix to return next game.

Taglianetti said that although the game was frustrating, the Panthers can’t dwell on the loss.

“We have to bounce back,” he said. “We have five conference games left and those are the big ones. We need to focus up and come back and finish strong.”