The Pitt News

Defense, fans fuel homecoming win over Virginia

Linebacker Mike Caprara celebrates a safety against Virginia.  Jeff Ahearn | Senior Staff Photographer

Linebacker Mike Caprara celebrates a safety against Virginia. Jeff Ahearn | Senior Staff Photographer

Linebacker Mike Caprara celebrates a safety against Virginia. Jeff Ahearn | Senior Staff Photographer

By Dan Sostek / Sports Editor

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Late Saturday afternoon, the Panthers had the University of Virginia football team backed up against their own end zone. The fans were there to see it.

Fans bellowed “Sweet Caroline” through Heinz Field following the third quarter, with Pitt running back Qadree Ollison re-opening play with a fumble one yard away from a touchdown. Coming off the impactful miscue, the Cavaliers took the ball over at their own one-yard line, trailing 24-13 with 15 minutes left to play — potentially enough time to assemble a comeback.

After Virginia quarterback Matt Johns rushed for one yard and threw an incomplete pass, the Cavaliers faced a third and nine on their own two-yard line with Pitt’s student section, the Panther Pitt, roaring in their ears.

The students got loud and waved their gold towels. They did their part.

Then, linebacker Mike Caprara did his. He rushed around the edge and brought Johns down from behind in the end zone, resulting in a safety — which gave the Panthers breathing room after a buzzkill of a turnover.

“As a defender, [the fans’ energy] is everything,” Caprara said. “Especially being at home. Especially down on that safety, I mean, the Panther Pitt was all over Virginia on that one. And you can just feel the energy. All 11 guys are feeding on it.”

Virginia quarterback Matt Johns struggles to get a pass out thanks to Pitt's defense. Jeff Ahearn | Assistant Visual Editor

Virginia quarterback Matt Johns struggles to get a pass out thanks to Pitt’s defense. Jeff Ahearn | Assistant Visual Editor

Following efforts from the Panther Pitt and the Pitt Athletic Department to improve fourth quarter attendance this season, including added shuttle stops, free refreshments for students following the game and a new fourth quarter hype video, Pitt players and coaches noticed a heightened buzz reverberating through the stadium. It was a crucial factor in Saturday’s 26-19 win over the Cavaliers.

“The Panther Pitt did a heck of a job,” head coach Pat Narduzzi said after the win. “They stayed through the fourth quarter, in my opinion. I’m sure a couple of them left, but I’m sure there’s a couple of reporters that left too. They did a tremendous job, and I think they had a huge part in [the safety].”

The game against Virginia was Pitt’s first home game in more than a month. Following the team’s season-opening win at Heinz Field against Youngstown State, the Panthers played on the road against Akron, Iowa and Virginia Tech, with a bye week in between.

Running back Chris James noted a difference in the environments between the two home contests this year.

“The fourth quarter a few weeks ago [against Youngstown State], not too many people were there, but fourth quarter today, they were still there,” James said. “Maybe it’s just because of the whole new energy with the new coaching staff and players, or you just never know. I’m just glad to see everyone there, because we play harder when they’re there.”

Linebacker Matt Galambos said with strong play this season, Pitt has given its fanbase reason to attend games and to get loud.

“I think the better we play, more people are going to show up, so it’s kind of really all on us,” Galambos said. “You can promote all you want, but if the product is not that good … which I think this year we’re pretty good, so they’re gonna want to see the product as a team.”

The Panthers are 4-1, and 2-0 in the ACC — good for a first place tie in the Coastal Divison. They’re two wins away from bowl eligibility — a feat they did not accomplish until their 12th game last year — and are off to the program’s best start since 2009, when the team finished 10-3. They’ll have the opportunity to build momentum at home as well — after heading out on the road for another two weeks against Georgia Tech and Syracuse, Pitt plays four of its final five games in Pittsburgh.

This team and this season feel different, and players are beginning to acknowledge it.

Junior tight end Scott Orndoff expanded on James’ comments about the new coaching staff amplifying the fanbase’s energy.

“Even just the fans, you can tell there’s a difference there, they’re more into it this year, they’re excited about the game, they’re behind us,” Orndoff said. “They always were behind us, but it’s just at another level. I think Coach Narduzzi just kind of, you see him pumping up the crowd.”

Once again, though, Galambos emphasized the players have to be a catalyst for that excitement.

“[Narduzzi] said, for us, if the fans see all of us energized, having fun, it kind of trickles over to them.” Galambos said. “It kind of all works together.”

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Defense, fans fuel homecoming win over Virginia