Pitt (4-6, 1-4 Big East) dropped to 1-4 at Rentschler Field after starting slow and suffering a 24-17 loss at Big East foe Connecticut (4-6, 1-4) Friday night. The Panthers attempted a comeback by scoring 17 unanswered points in the second half but it was too little too late.
"We dug ourselves way too big of a hole," Pitt head coach Paul Chryst said after the game. "I was proud of the way we responded in the second half but you just can't spot a team 24."
It appeared the Panthers were suffering from a hangover in the first half after last week's disappointing loss at Notre Dame. They could not get out of their own way, especially on special teams against a Connecticut team that entered the game on a four-game losing streak.
"You shouldn't be giving out awards for playing hard and fighting. That's what's expected," Chryst said.
"We have to get beyond trying hard and fighting."
The Huskies struck first and mounted a 75 yard, 11 play drive on the first possession of the game and took a 7-0 lead after Chandler Whitmer hit tight end Ryan Griffin for a two yard touchdown. The Huskies booted a 26 yard field goal on their next drive and Uconn took a 10-0 lead in the first quarter.
Pitt advanced in the red zone in the first half, but the drive stalled and Kevin Harper's 44-yard field goal attempt banged off the right upright and was no good.
Things got worse in the second quarter as Nick Williams returned a punt 80 yards for a touchdown to push Connecticut's lead to 17-0 lead. He was basically untouched during the return.
"The punt return was a big play," Chryst said.
Late in the second quarter, Pitt forced a punt but the Huskies downed it at the one yard line. The Panthers were then forced to punt from the shadow of their own endzone. The Huskies took advantage of the field position.
Lyle McCombs scored a two yard touchdown to give Connecticut a 24-0 lead at the break. It was Connecticut's first rushing touchdown since Sept. 29.
Pitt was held to 14 yards of rushing in the first half. The Panther defense gave up 249 yards of offense in the first half to a Connecticut team that has been averaging about 329 yard per game. McCombs ran for 120 yards overall.
"Connecticut ran the ball well," Chryst said. "Probably the best they ran the ball [this season]."
In this tale of two halves, the Panthers mounted a comeback attempt in the second half. Harper booted a 42-yard field goal in the third quarter to break the scoreboard and trailed 24-3 at the end of the third quarter.
The Panthers scored their first touchdown of the game early in the fourth quarter. Sunseri capped a 72 yard, six-play drive with an 11-yard touchdown to Drew Carswell and Pitt trailed 24-10.
With five minutes left in the game, the Huskies drove into the red zone and were threatening to ice the game but Jared Holley picked off Whitmer in the endzone and the Panthers had new life. It was Pitt's only interception of the game.
Sunseri drove the Panthers 80 yards in two minutes while running a hurry-up and when he tossed an 18-yard touchdown to Mike Shanahan, Pitt trailed only 24-17 with 2:46 left in the game.
On the ensuing kickoff, Chryst chose not to kick an onsides kick in an attempt to get the ball back. It looked as if his strategy would pay off when the Huskies were facing a third and nine, but Whitmer converted on a 17 yard completion to Shakim Philips for a first down to ice the game. Pitt linebacker Shane Gordon blitzed on the play and was holding onto Whitmer's leg on the play but the quarterback was still able to complete the pass downfield.
"Shane [Gordon] beat the back and got to the quarterback," Chryst said. "K'waun slipped, they converted and made the play. We didn’t."
Tino Sunseri completed 19 passes on 34 attempts for 302 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. Ray Graham was held to 41 yards on 15 carries.
Devin Street had six catches for 76 yards. Mike Shanahan had five catches for 79 yards and a touchdown. Drew Carswell had a career night with five catches for 83 yards and a touchdown. He entered the game with only five catches this season.
Pitt only converted four third down conversions on 12 attempts, a problem that Chryst pointed out after the game.
"That's huge. You're not gong to win many games not converting third downs," Chryst said. "We feel we have a couple good running backs and you're not going to get them as man touches if you don't convert third downs."
The Panthers return to action on November 24 by hosting Rutgers in the last home game of the year. They finish the season at South Florida on December 1. They now need to win both games to become bowl eligible.