It wasn’t supposed to end like this for the Panthers, with James Conner, Nathan Peterman and Dorian Johnson watching from the sidelines as Kyle Querio picked off a Ben DiNucci pass at the 34 yard line to seal the victory for the 6-6 Northwestern Wildcats.
It was the end of a season which saw the Panthers beat their in-state rival Penn State, Clemson, the #2 team in the nation, finish the regular season 8-4 and vault into the AP Top 25. It was the end of the Pitt careers of Conner, Peterman, Johnson, Bisnowaty, Orndoff and the other seniors. It was the end of Matt Canada, who will be leaving to take the offensive coordinator position at LSU, and the highest scoring offense in Pitt history.
With the elusive ninth victory in sight, it was a chance for the Panthers to finish the season ranked and gain some momentum for the final month of recruiting. But a confluence of injures, missed opportunities and a tough Northwestern squad combined to defeat the Panthers, 31-24 at Yankee Stadium.
(Photos from today’s game courtesy of Matt Dewkett)
Pitt certainly had its chances to seize control of the game early. After stopping Northwestern on the first series, the Panthers started with great field position. A 38-yard pass to Dontez Ford on the first play of the game put the Panthers in the red zone, but the drive stalled from there and they had to settle for a 46-yard field goal from Chris Blewitt.
Another Pitt defensive stand lead to a methodical drive by the Panthers, who were poised to take a 10-0 lead, but FB George Aston slipped at the 1 yard line on what should have been a walk in touchdown and a play later James Conner was stuffed on 4th down.
It was that kind of day for the Panthers.
A few plays later, Justin Jackson, who finished the game with 226 yards on 33 carries, ripped off a 68-yard run. Jackson would then finish Northwestern’s 99-yard drive with a dash into the end zone on an 8-yard touchdown run.
The next possession saw the Panthers again drive into the red zone, but Peterman’s interception at the goal line put an end to another promising drive.
The team which lead the FBS in red zone TD efficiency during the regular season at 83% started the game 0-3, with only three points to show for it.
Northwestern would efficiently drive the ball deep inside Pitt territory before Avonte Maddox picked Clayton Thorson in the end zone to give the Panthers back the ball.
A three and out by the Panthers, who struggled to generate much of a running game for the first time this season, gave Northwestern the ball back with good field position. The Wildcats would waste no time in taking it in for the score on a dazzling 16-yard run by Jackson, making it 14-3.
But with the game slipping away, the Panthers would bounce right back. On the first play from scrimmage, Peterman found Weah for a nice 69-yard touchdown catch and run and the Panthers were back within four points.
Pitt’s defense was able to hold the Wildcats on the ensuing possession and Pitt LB Matt Galambos recovered a backward pass with just :36 seconds left in the half, but the Panthers couldn’t get into field goal range and time expired with the Wildcats on top 14-10. Conner who had taken a hit to the head finished the half on the sideline. He would not reenter the game.
The Panthers had only 52 yards on the ground at the break, while the Wildcats racked up 165 on 29 carries. Surprisingly, Northwestern’s star WR Austin Carr had only three targets and two catches at the half and would finish the game with just six catches for 51 yards.
Pitt got the ball to start the second half and wasted no time in taking the lead. Quadree Henderson nearly went to the house on a jet sweep, picking up 58 yards on the first play. Nate Peterman would finish the drive with a 5-yard touchdown run on 3rd and four. Blewitt’s PAT gave the Panthers a three point lead, 17-14.
But again, Northwestern answered. Jackson’s 40-yard touchdown run puts the Wildcats back on top, 21-17. With myriad chances to stop the Wildcats and get the ball back for the Pitt offense, the Panther defense allowed Northwestern to convert on multiple 3rd and 4th downs.
With the Panthers starting on the 46 yard line, they looked primed to take back the lead, but bad luck and bad snaps put an end to that. Shortly after Dorian Johnson left the game with an apparent leg injury, a bad snap lead to a monster hit to Nate Peterman’s head. There was no flag, and Chris Blewitt, on 4th and 22, missed a 43 yard field goal that would have pulled the Panthers to within one.
Even with all the squandered chances, Pitt would find a way to take the lead. After shutting down the Wildcats, Pitt blocked the punt and recovered the ball on the 22 yard line. Enter the untested Ben DiNucci in his first collegiate action. DiNucci would get the Panthers into the end zone with a 6-yard pass to George Aston. The Blewitt extra point made it 24-21 Panthers with 13:15 left on the clock.
Northwestern, however, would remain undaunted, and it would take less than five minutes for the Wildcats to retake the lead, this time for good. Northwestern was able to convert on two third downs and a forth down before Clayton Thorson found Garrett Dickerson for a 21-yard touchdown on 4th and 1. The extra point made it 28-24.
On the ensuing possession, Quadree Henderson fumbled the ball which was quickly turned into three points after a 36 yard field goal by Jack Mitchell. The Panthers would get the ball back twice more, but Ben DiNucci was picked off on both drives, the first time after the Panthers had driven all the way to to the 18 yard line, and a second time on 3rd and 7 with 2:06 on the clock.
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