ATLANTA — Over and over, the Pitt Panthers brought up one word in their post-game interviews after a 31-21 loss to Michigan State in the Peach Bowl.
Pride in one of the greatest seasons in school history, one that ended in 11 wins and the first ACC Championship for the program.
Pride in a year that saw individual success, from Kenny Pickett earning a spot at the Heisman ceremony to Jordan Addison winning the Biletnikoff award.
Pride in a team that reinvigorated the energy around the program, enough to where the lower bowl at Mercedes-Benz Stadium could have been mistaken for Heinz Field on a Steelers game day with yellow Pitt towels swirling all night.
Pride in a night where the Panthers almost won their first New Year’s Six since the 1981 Sugar Bowl despite losing their quarterback, running back and a slew of defensive starters to injury.
In the end, it wasn’t enough. Pitt was outscored 21-0 over the final 8:06 as a spirited defense slowly reached its breaking point against a diligent Michigan State offense. Starting quarterback Nick Patti suffered a broken collarbone in the first quarter, and Davis Belville was pressed into duty for his first action since September on the shortest notice possible.
The disappointment will linger. The Panthers were within touching distance of accomplishing something no Pitt team in the last four decades had and could not finish the game. A botched third-and-1 on the penultimate offensive possession will sting for a while. So will allowing Michigan State to convert a third-and-7 and three third-and-10 plays on the touchdown drive that ended up deciding the game. And of course, Belville’s pick six with 21 seconds remaining was a cruel twist of the knife after he drove the offense onto the edges of field goal range.
‘It’s not easy,” Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi said. “But that’s the ballgame. We haven’t lost for a while. Our kids have a lot of confidence. So, it hurts. They’re hurting there. They’re frustrated. A lot of tears in that locker room. They care and they fought.”
The hurt is palpable, the frustration is strong, and the tears were there. But so was the pride.
“I wish more than anything we could have pulled this out for everyone because I feel like we deserved it,” linebacker John Petrishen said. “We played a heck of a game tonight. Everybody played so hard, I’m so proud of everybody.”
And when reflecting on his college career as a whole, Petrishen shared the same sentiments in the macro as he did with the micro of Thursday’s game.
“This program is on the right track,” he said. “I’m so excited for what’s in store in the future. But like I said, I can’t be more grateful or appreciative of the opportunity and the season we had this year. I’m really proud to say that I helped put this team back on the map.”
Davis Belville’s Game
Davis Belleville entered the Peach Bowl with four pass attempts on the season and 14 in his college career. He more than doubled that in one game and gave Pitt every opportunity to win.
Belville finished 14-for-18 passing with 149 yards, a touchdown and an interception. He did it all with heavy pressure in his face; Michigan State sacked him five times. The interception will be the lasting image of this game, but it was far from the whole picture.
“Yeah, in our empty looks, they mugged up, put those two backs in the box,” Belville said, explaining what he saw on the interception.” [I] Took a step forward, I thought he was coming, tried to put it right behind him, he stepped back and made a great play. Give all the credit to him [Michigan State linebacker Cal Haladay].”
While a far cry from the eye-popping performances of Pickett or Patti’s flashy start, it was enough to have the ball with a chance to tie or win the game late.
“He put it on his shoulders,” left guard Marcus Minor said. “He was a leader throughout the whole time. We needed to be better for him. But he was able to work with us. We communicated on and off the sidelines. I’m proud of him, his standpoint, and I am happy we were able to have him.”
For Davis Beville, there was a lot to be proud of.
Jordan Addison’s Historic Season
Jordan Addison put a bow on one of the best seasons for any wide receiver in school history. The Biletnikoff winner caught seven passes for 114 yards, including a mesmerizing 52-yard reception with a twisting run that set up Belville’s touchdown.
His final numbers clocked in at 93 receptions for 1,479 yards and 17 touchdowns, an average of 113.8 yards per game.
“Jordan Addison is an outstanding player,” Narduzzi said. “I don’t know what hasn’t been said about him. Winning a Biletnikoff. Wish he’d had more than seven catches. Probably should have got him the ball more, just couldn’t get it to him enough. In the second half, the play was just to have Davis look to find No. 3 and throw it to him, let him go make a play.”
The other angle of an almost entire game of painstaking defensive football with a depleted roster is it leaves a fourth quarter of holding on for dear life. Pitt found out the painful way.
Michigan State ran 86 offensive plays, including 25 in the fourth quarter alone. The two touchdown drives were 13 and 11 plays respectively.
“Yeah, it’s probably mental fatigue,” Campbell said. “Focus, a lot goes into it. It can be distractions. Like on the field, like you cannot get the call right away, you can be trying to look for your assignment, your alignment. Things happen really fast during the game.”
The last two drives became a hydraulic press for the overworked defense, and eventually the pressure finally broke it.
Winning Up Front
When Belville was still finding his feet in the first half, Pitt’s defense held the fort. Michigan State drove the ball inside the Pitt 30 on four straight second quarter possessions, but only came away with a total of three points. In particular the Panthers found an upper hand in the trenches, holding Michigan State to 56 rushing yards on 36 carries and sacking Thorne three times.
“I feel like the defense stepped up in a lot of ways today,” linebacker Phil Campbell III said. “We can’t point fingers and we can’t say they should have done this better, they could have ran this play. But all I can do is just look at what my responsibility was leading the defense.”
Michigan State went just shy of 50 minutes (49:55) where it scored three points after the initial touchdown, and on another night with a little bit of a healthier roster it might have ended in celebrations.
But when all the dust settled and confetti cleared, one feeling remained. The same one that existed for the quarterback, the offense, the program and the season as a whole.
“I’m proud of everybody, even guys that had touchdowns scored on them,” Campbell said. “You can’t look at that one play. You got to look at the body of work they did throughout the game and throughout the season. I’m proud of all of them, honestly.”
There’s that pride again.