Panthers planted by Huskers’ defense

By BRIAN WEAVER

LINCOLN, Neb. – The storybook wasn’t supposed to end like this.

After Pitt place-kicker Josh… LINCOLN, Neb. – The storybook wasn’t supposed to end like this.

After Pitt place-kicker Josh Cummings snagged a botched snap and threw it away to stop the clock with one second left in the game, the Panthers got another chance to win the game with a field goal. Make this field goal, and fans would talk for years about the magical finish at Nebraska.

But Nebraska’s Adam Ickes rewrote the ending. As Cummings booted what could have been the game-winning field goal, Ickes leapt above the pileup at the line of scrimmage and batted the ball down, preserving a 7-6 win for Nebraska.

“You could go your whole life and not see that again,” Cummings said of the ending.

The blocked field goal – Nebraska’s second of the game – provided a disappointing ending to a spectacular Pitt two-minute drill. After Nebraska’s Jordan Congdon missed a 38-yard field goal, the Panthers got the ball at their own 22 with 1:38 to play.

Pitt drove 21 yards before two incompletions set up a critical fourth-and-one situation. Quarterback Tyler Palko ran a sneak for two yards to keep the drive alive, and followed it two plays later with a 26-yard strike over the middle to receiver Joe DelSardo to set up a dramatic finale to a defensive slugfest.

Nebraska scored the game’s only touchdown early in the second quarter. The Cornhuskers started with good field position after Cortney Grixby returned a punt 14 yards to Pitt’s 49-yard line.

After a three-yard loss on Cory Ross’s rush to the left, quarterback Zac Taylor found Terrance Nunn for a 36-yard completion, setting up first-and-goal from the six-yard line. Pitt held for three downs, but Taylor capped the drive by rushing in on fourth-and-goal from the one.

The Panthers scored their points on two Cummings field goals in the third quarter, one from 27 yards and one from 38. But those were overshadowed in the end by his miss from 49 yards out and the two blocks.

The botched kicks were only a small part of Pitt’s special teams issues. Earlier in the game, Darrelle Revis didn’t square his shoulders to a punt and fumbled it, losing six yards. Later, Husker punter Sam Koch’s third-quarter punt sailed well over Revis’ head, and by the time he could track it down, the ball had traveled 84 yards, pinning the Panthers inside their own 10-yard line.

In addition, Pitt also surrendered a 62-yard punt return to Terrence Nunn. But in spite of the miscues, head coach Dave Wannstedt remains optimistic about his special teams.

“We did some good things on special teams,” he said. One of the bright spots he referred to was Cody Sawhill’s onsides kick to start the second half, which the Panthers recovered.

The entire game featured a battle between running backs. Nebraska’s Cory Ross, who ran for 153 yards on 32 carries, almost single-handedly marched his team down the field every series. He also led the Huskers with three receptions.

Raymond Kirkley got the start in place of Rashad Jennings, who didn’t make the trip because of an injury, for Pitt, but after the first drive, LaRod Stephens-Howling established himself as the main Panther threat. He first touched the ball at the beginning of the second series, and by the time Adam Graessle punted away three minutes later, Stephens had carried the ball five times for 43 yards.

“The offensive line definitely did its job,” Stephens-Howling said, quick to praise his blocking. “I played my hardest. I just did what I had to do.”

No other back established himself, due in large part to the stellar play of both defensive lines. Nebraska’s defense roamed the Pitt backfield all day. Adam Carricker and Wali Muhammad each registered two sacks in the first half. Pitt’s offensive line gave Palko more time in the second half, but the Husker front four still had several tackles for losses.

Not to be outdone, Pitt’s defensive line put up an equally tough showing, establishing themselves at the end of the first half in a sequence that would set the tone for the rest of the game.

Nunn’s long return put Nebraska at the Pitt 30 with 1:54 to play in the half. On the first play of the drive, Chris McKillop and Charles Sallet sandwiched Taylor for an 11-yard loss. After a Nebraska timeout, the Panthers struck again as Phil Tillman burst through the Husker line for a nine-yard sack at midfield. Pitt went on to hold the Huskers scoreless in the second half, despite the loss of safety Mike Phillips to injury.

“We finally grew up,” defensive end Thomas Smith said of the young defensive line, which was highly criticized for its poor performance in the season’s first two games. Smith pointed out that the line was motivated in part by Nebraska offensive line coach Dennis Wagner’s comments comparing them to a bunch of trees standing around watching the action.

“I think [Lincoln] is a classy city, the classiest fans I’ve ever been around. You don’t expect dirt like that to be thrown around, especially from their coaches,” Smith said.

Lineman Charles Sallet agreed, saying, “We took it as a challenge to get better.”

The Pitt passing attack suffered once again, as Palko completed just 11 of 26 passes for 190 yards. Twice he found Greg Lee for long catches – a 21-yard strike on the first play from scrimmage and a pass that went for 73 yards in the third quarter – but often the two were on different pages.

“Pass-wise, one time a receiver’s off, the next time there’s pressure,” Wannstedt said of the aerial game’s failure. Palko agreed, though he wasn’t about to point fingers.

“It was just a little miscommunication,” he said. “It doesn’t matter whose fault it is, we really have to get it done.”

Pitt will get a chance to get it done next week, as they return to Heinz Field to play Division I-AA opponent Youngstown State. Kickoff is set for 2 p.m.

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