Running wild: Chad Voytik, James Conner combine for 203 rushing yards in Pitt win

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Running wild: Chad Voytik, James Conner combine for 203 rushing yards in Pitt win

By Ryan Bertonaschi / Senior Staff Writer

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History would suggest that the Pitt students swaying in Thursday’s overcast weather singing “Sweet Caroline” would leave shortly after the song. But running back James Conner burst into the end zone just minutes after the sing-along ended to give Pitt a 21-9 lead over Virginia Tech, ensuring that the some 43,125 fans in attendance at Heinz Field would remain seated.

Since 2012, Pitt has been on the giving end of three late-game giveaways. But perhaps the trend among Paul Chryst’s Panthers is beginning to reverse itself. On Thursday, Pitt’s defense prevailed in the game’s final minutes to close out a 21-16 win against its ACC Coastal Division rival Virginia Tech.

The Panthers’ offensive identity was no secret during the team’s first six games this season. Pitt’s offense lived and died by two weapons: star receiver Tyler Boyd and Conner, who had received more handoffs than all but one running back in Division I (156).

But Thursday, quarterback Chad Voytik led the team in rushes (19) and yardage (118). Chryst said the amount of designed carries Voytik ran depended on what the defense was giving the Panthers. Voytik concurred.

“It just turned out where almost every call, every read, happened to be me keeping the ball,” Voytik said. “That’s just how we called it and how we read it.”

Voytik kept his composure after a couple rough first possessions.

Voytik fumbled on Pitt’s first possession while the Panthers began on an offensive roll, but Pitt’s defense forced a three-and-out, and, when Voytik and company got the ball back, Pitt put together a touchdown drive highlighted by an impressive 53-yard pass play — Pitt’s longest of the season.

After six consecutive run plays, Voytik dropped back to pass. Lined up in the slot on the right side of the field, Boyd faked outside on cornerback Kendall Fuller, who was recently named to Sports Illustrated’s midseason All-America Team. Fuller lost a step on Boyd, who bolted 17 yards into the open secondary.

Voytik led Boyd in stride with a floating pass, and Boyd reeled it in. When Hokies safety Kyshoen Jarrett lunged to tackle him, Boyd, again, faked outside. Jarrett hit the turf, and Boyd trotted into the end zone.

The teams traded several punts, and what could have been the most miscue-filled quarter in the college football season began. The officiating crew played an integral role in the madness.

A minute in, Pitt cornerback Reggie Mitchell was flagged 15 yards for kick-catching interference, and so started a quarter consisting of 10 penalties, five of which went against Pitt for 50 yards.

Three initial rulings in the quarter were changed.

Conner mishandled the ball while powering towards a first down marker with 7:09 remaining in the half, and a fumble was called but overturned after review.

Pitt punted, and, seconds later, Hokies quarterback Michael Brewer threw what was determined by referees to be a complete pass to his receiver Ryan Malleck. Pitt safety Ray Vinopal brought down Malleck, and Malleck lost control of the ball. Pitt defensive end David Durham pounced on it, and a roar erupted from fans decked out in blue and gold.

But the referees ruled Durham out of bounds, and Pitt fans anticipated a rescinded call that would give Pitt the ball in field goal range. But the pass was ruled incomplete, and, on the very next play, Mitchell forced a fumble, and Pitt regained possession at Virginia Tech’s 22 yard line.

Conner scurried past the Hokie defenders five plays later for a 15-yard touchdown run, despite a holding penalty charged against Pitt to open the drive, and the Panthers took a 14-3 lead.   

Voytik threw an interception towards midfield, and Tech marched downfield to score on a field goal as time expired.

When play resumed, Brewer, who struggled mightily in the first half by going nine for 19 for an average of just 2.9 yards per completion, pieced together a drive with a 40-yard pass play and a concluding field goal.

After Conner’s touchdown run, the Hokies finally put six points on the board on a pass from Brewer to receiver Cam Phillips, and Pitt’s lead was cut to five points as the score reached 21-16.

With 2:52 to play, Pitt received the ball and was in need of a couple first downs to put the game away.

Voytik ran for a first down, but Pitt ran themselves into a third and long situation. Voytik dropped back to pass, and he sailed the ball through Rachid Ibrahim’s hands, forcing the Panthers’ special teams crew to take the field and soon the defense.

Mitchell bluntly put the team’s plan of action into words.

“Just don’t let them score. We play our hardest until the last second of the game.” 

It took a sack by Nicholas Grigsby, and Vinopal delivered what could become a season-saving hit on Phillips, who reached for the catch that fell incomplete. The Panthers (4-3, 2-1 ACC) finished off the Hokies (4-3, 1-2 ACC).

“It’s big,” Chryst said. “Everyone in our locker room is competitive. What it means going forward is up to us. You appreciate the effort. We have an opportunity to build on this win, and we have to do that.”

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