Patti, special teams lead Pitt to 37-35 Sun Bowl victory against No. 18 UCLA


AP Photo/Andres Leighton

Pittsburgh placekicker Ben Sauls (90) boots the winning field goal during the second half of the Sun Bowl NCAA college football game against UCLA, Friday, Dec. 30, 2022 in El Paso, Texas.

By Richie Smiechowski, Sports Editor

For his entire career at Pitt, Nick Patti waited for his turn.

The redshirt quarterback got his biggest chance in last year’s Peach Bowl against Michigan State, but broke his collarbone in the first quarter. In this year’s Sun Bowl against No. 18 UCLA, he got a second chance in the limelight. 

With 34 seconds left in the game and the Panthers down by two points, all eyes were on Patti and the Pitt offense. Less than two minutes earlier, they had a chance to end the game with a fourth down conversion, but faltered, allowing UCLA to take a two-point lead very late in the contest.

Staying cool under pressure, the signal caller made the most of his biggest opportunity, quickly driving into field goal range and giving redshirt sophomore kicker Ben Sauls the opportunity to give the Panthers their second bowl game win in three attempts. Their clutch performances led Pitt to a wild 37-35 victory against No. 18 UCLA, giving the Panthers their first Sun Bowl victory since 1989.

Pitt football’s last two Sun Bowl appearances are remembered for their remarkable lack of offensive output from either team. In 2018, the Panthers took on Stanford and lost 14-13, and in 2008, Pitt lost to Oregon State 3-0 despite legendary running back LeSean McCoy leading the offense. 

Patti and the Panther offense found their rhythm immediately in the first quarter, quickly moving into Bruin territory on a 41 yard scramble on their second offensive play of the game. 

Following his run, Patti thrived in offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti’s offense, utilizing quick passes and giving his receivers space to run with the football. The Panthers moved the ball all the way up to the six-yard-line, gaining yards methodically on short gains. Despite their strong field position, the offense couldn’t push across the goal line and settled for a 22-yard field goal. 

UCLA redshirt senior quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robsinson and the Bruin offense capitalized on Pitt’s lost points, quickly pushing up the field thanks to a 51 yard reception from redshirt junior wide receiver Kam Brown. They wasted no time finding the end zone, taking the lead on an 11-yard passing touchdown to junior wide receiver Logan Loya on the next play. 

Following the UCLA score, the Panthers found some momentum on offense, but faltered at the Bruins 31-yard-line and settled for a field goal, bringing the contest to 7-6 before the end of the quarter. 

Thompson-Gray and the Bruin offense continued taking advantage of the Panthers depleted defense. Pitt’s secondary couldn’t stop UCLA, giving up a huge chunk play for the second consecutive drive. Thomson-Robinson pushed into the end zone two plays later, extending UCLA’s lead to 14-6.

After a three-and-out from the Pitt offense, UCLA again drove down into Pitt territory on a few big gains. This time, the Panthers defense stood tall, intercepting a tipped pass in the red zone and killing the Bruins momentum. 

From their own six-yard-line, Patti and the offense put together their best drive of the half. Highlighted by a 45-yard reception by redshirt sophomore wide receiver Bub Means, the Panthers drove 94 yards for the score, tying the game at 14.

Just before the end of the half, the Bruins showcased their offensive power again, driving down the field without much resistance and quickly reclaiming a seven-point lead on a 28-yard touchdown pass. After a harmless drive from Pitt to end the half, the two sides went into the locker room with UCLA holding a significant advantage across the board. 

For as high-powered as the two offenses started the game, the two defenses took control in the third quarter, starting with the Panthers who again intercepted Gray-Thompson in the endzone, killing an otherwise productive drive. 

Neither team could get anything going on offense over the next few drives, and after consecutive three-and-outs, UCLA took the momentum on a 52-yard interception return by redshirt first year defensive back Jaylin Davies, extending their lead to 28-14.

Later in the third quarter, the Panthers finally managed to produce on offense, slowly moving up the field and eventually scoring on a one-yard run from sophomore running back Rodney Hammond Jr. The teams went into the fourth quarter with UCLA still holding a seven point advantage. 

After failing to take advantage of opportunities in the first three quarters, the Panthers got another break at the start of the fourth. Junior linebacker Bangally Kamara intercepted Gray-Robinson, giving the Panthers a chance at tying the game late. A few plays later they did just that, with Hammond Jr. rusing for his second touchdown of the game. 

For most of the second half, heavy winds in El Paso wreaked havoc on the kicking game. Luckily for the Panthers, it quickly became the difference maker in the second half. On the ensuing kickoff after the Panthers tied the game at 28, redshirt sophomore Ben Saul’s kick flew straight into the strong headwind, causing UCLA to mishandle the ball and give Pitt possession on the Bruins 19-yard line. 

Despite being deep in their opponents territory, the Panthers faltered in the red zone. They settled for a field goal and took a 31-28 lead. The next kickoff again caused problems for the Bruins, who were forced to start on offense at their own five yard line. 

Pitt quickly got the ball back with great field possession at the 50-yard line. Patti led the Panthers deep into UCLA territory and eventually to another field goal, extending Pitt’s lead to six. 

Over the next few possessions, the Panthers held the Bruins at bay, taking advantage of backup redshirt sophomore quarterback Ethan Garber’s inexperience. With two minutes left, the Bruins got their final chance at taking the lead, taking over possession at their own 30 with no timeouts. 

Suddenly, UCLA’s offense came back to life. 

With stellar clock management and playcalling, the Bruins quickly drove all the way up the field, easily picking apart the Panther defense. With 34 seconds left, first year running back T.J. Harden ran into the endzone, giving the Bruins a late 35-34 lead. 

Then, Patti and the Panthers began their drive down the field. First Patti completed a pass 18-yards downfield, then completed another for 17-yards on an impressive catch from means. At the UCLA 40, he scrambled and ran straight up the middle for another first down and spiked the ball with 11 seconds left at the 29-yard line. 

Instead of taking a shot at another few yards, Narduzzi elected to send out Sauls for his fifth attempt of the game for a 47-yard field-goal try straight into the wind. He stepped up to the ball with confidence and drilled the kick straight through the uprights, sending the Pitt bench into a frenzy. 

With four seconds left, the Bruins attempted a last minute shot downfield to no avail, giving the Panthers a wild 37-35 Sun Bowl victory. 

Patti played brilliantly for the Panthers, living up to his billing as a great bowl game player. Hammond also gave Pitt fans a glimpse into the future with an 89-yard, two touchdown performance in the victory. 

As a program, it’s Pitt’s second bowl win since 2019. It’s also the first time the team has won nine or more games in back-to-back years since the 2008-09 seasons.