Football: Pitt starts strong, fall apart in fourth quarter

By Lauren Kirschman

What started as a solid execution of head coach Todd Graham’s system imploded in the fourth… What started as a solid execution of head coach Todd Graham’s system imploded in the fourth quarter, as the Pitt football team let a 21-point lead slip away in its first road game of the season.

The Iowa Hawkeyes, who trailed for three quarters, outscored Pitt 21-3 in the fourth and took the lead on a James Vandenberg pass to wide receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley in the end zone. With a final score of 31-27 came Pitt’s first loss of the season.

Pitt regained the ball with 2:51 remaining in the game, but Iowa right cornerback Micah Hyde intercepted quarterback Tino Sunseri, allowing the Hawkeyes to run out the clock and seal the victory at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City.

“We’re disappointed,” Pitt senior defensive tackle Chas Alecxih said. “To feel like you’re beating them up for literally the whole game, and then it’s just a nightmare.”

The Panthers looked impressive early, pulling out to a 24-3 lead in the third quarter.

“There was great rhythm, guys getting after it, it was exciting to watch,” Pitt head coach Todd Graham said. “It was the best by far that we’ve played, and it was just really disheartening.”

But once Pitt reached that point, the team began to unravel.Suddenly, a defense that kept the Iowa offense at bay for most of the game couldn’t stop the passing attack.

A Pitt offense that finally looked smooth and, as Graham said, “like we want it to look,” couldn’t move down the field and turned the ball over. The result was Pitt being outscored 21-3 in the fourth quarter, a quarter where Iowa had four possesions and three touchdowns. The only possesion the Hawkeyes didn’t score a touchdown on was the final possesion of the game, when they intentionally ran the clock out.

The pinnacle of their fourth quarter success came when Vandenberg found Martin-Manley in the end zone to cut the Pitt lead to 27-24. The momentum completely shifted, and the Hawkeyes rode that touchdown straight to the game-winner.

The Panthers didn’t lose their aggressiveness, Alecxih said, but they didn’t play as smart as they had all game.

Alecxih pointed to unsatisfactory senior leadership as one of the major reasons for Pitt’s struggles so far this season. Against Buffalo and Maine, the Panthers also let their opponents score late in the game.

“It’s on me. It’s on the rest of the seniors,” he said. “The senior leadership was horrendous. They have the ball and we’re up by 10, we just have to say that they’re not moving the ball.”

Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said he doesn’t know what ignited the Hawkeyes’ comeback, but he did tell the players that many of their struggles were self-inflicted.

“We wanted to throw the ball a little bit today, but we’re struggling in the passing game,” he said. “Really found our rhythm in the last 20 minutes. That was good to see.”

Even with the late collapse, Graham said he was confident that Pitt would be able to score at the end of the fourth quarter and take home the victory.

“I thought we were going to march it right down and score at the end of the game, because they really couldn’t stop our offense and what we’re doing,” Graham said.

He added that Iowa’s inability to run the football made him feel secure throughout the game that Pitt would win — until Pitt’s pass coverage started to fall apart.

“I thought we did a great job tackling; I thought we did a great job with the plan we had,” he said. “I thought we did well even in the passing game, then all of the sudden we started backing up, loosening up, not executing the coverage, letting guys run down the seam with no one on them.”

Graham said Sunseri looked the best he’s looked all season for portions of the game, but the quarterback also made several mistakes, including two interceptions and a dropped snap. His second interception late in the fourth quarter all but wrapped up the Iowa victory.

Sunseri finished with 255 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions on 23-33 passing.

“I thought he played better,” Graham said. “But you can’t turn the ball over. Poor ball security cost us a lot of time in this game.”

Sunseri said nobody on the team relaxed with the big lead, but added that the Panthers didn’t play as well in the fourth quarter.

“For three and a half quarters, we felt like we were doing everything right,” Sunseri said. “But you can’t play three and a half quarters and expect to win a game against a good Iowa team. We just have to go in, finish off games and do everything we can as an offense to put points on the board.”

Wide receiver Devin Street, who collected 138 yards and one touchdown on seven receptions, said the Panthers won’t “hang their heads.”

“We see what we can do, what our potential is,” Street said. “We just have to go out and execute. I think we got a little too comfortable with that 24-3 lead.”

What Pitt needs to find, Street added, is consistency. After dominating for much of the game, the Panthers seemed to fall apart completely in the fourth quarter, unable to complete the plays that originally built the large lead. Two costly penalties for a total of 17 yards hurt Pitt’s cause in the fourth quarter, especially since the Panthers were able to avoid penalties for much of the game.

The Hawkeyes pulled to within three points with 6:19 left in the fourth quarter when Vandenberg found Martin-Manley for a 25-yard touchdown. After the extra point, Pitt led 27-24. The Panthers punted on their next possession, setting up Iowa’s game-winning drive.

Vandenberg picked up 9 yards on two quick completions, then rushed for 2 yards for the first down. After three consecutive incompletions, a holding call against Pitt moved the ball 11 yards for a first down.

Vandenberg rushed up the middle for 15 yards on the next snap and then found Martin-Manley in the end zone again. After the extra point, Iowa led 31-27.

Vandenberg finished with 399 yards on 31-48 passing with three touchdowns and an interception.

“He typically looks unflappable,” Ferentz said. “That’s always his demeanor, that’s just how he is. But clearly things weren’t going well [early]. But he never came unglued, stayed positive, kept pushing. Then things started moving well for us.”

Martin-Manley, a redshirt freshman, finished with 112 yards on eight receptions.

“It’s great to have a lot of young guys step up,” Ferentz said.

The Panthers ran 71 plays to Iowa’s 81, finishing with 422 yards of total offense. Iowa racked up 475 yards of total offense.

Pitt running back Ray Graham finished with 97 yards on 22 carries and no touchdowns. Graham had a hand in the most exciting pass of the game for Pitt, but the pass didn’t come from the quarterback. In the third quarter, Sunseri handed off to Graham who handed off to freshman wide receiver Ronald Jones.

Jones, a former high school quarterback, hit a wide-open Cameron Saddler downfield for a 30-yard touchdown that made the score 17-3.

The Panthers added another touchdown soon after, when Sunseri found H-back Drew Carswell in the endzone. After the extra point, Pitt led 24-3.

Iowa answered when Vandenberg ran the ball in for a 1-yard touchdown to cut Pitt’s lead to 24-10.

But Pitt responded quickly, mounting a drive that lasted from the end of the third quarter to the early fourth quarter and ended with a 24-yard Kevin Harper field goal to make the score 27-10.

Midway through the fourth quarter, Vandenberg hit wide receiver Keenan Davis for a 19-yard touchdown, pulling the Hawkeyes within 10 with 9:55 remaining in the game.

After the game, Alecxih said the Panthers will learn from the loss, mature and be ready for Notre Dame on Saturday.

“We’re up 24-3 at the end of the third? That’s a joke,” Alecxih said of losing the lead. “It’s not going to happen again.”