With Dorian Thompson-Robinson out of action, UCLA backup Ethan Garbers loaded up for one more throw. A field goal wasn’t an option, so a touchdown was needed.
Garber unloaded as time expired on the clock, forced to just chuck up a ball with Shayne Simon in his face, and M.J. Devonshire came down with a game-sealing interception to clinch the 2022 Sun Bowl. It was UCLA’s fourth interception.
It was also a 37-35 win for Pitt, overcoming a 14-point second half deficit and a 1-point deficit with just 34 seconds left in the game.
With such a degree of opt-outs, especially as UCLA head coach Chip Kelly boasted about his squad’s lack of opt-outs, it was a complete team effort in clinching a ninth — and fifth-straight — win to close out the 2022 season.
— Pitt Panthers (@Pitt_ATHLETICS) December 31, 2022
A Fairytale Ending for Nick Patti
When Nick Patti’s head bounced off the turf late in the first half, it appeared that his second bowl appearance was going to be cut short.
It would’ve been a second straight season in which an injury knocked Patti out of the game, but after two Nate Yarnell snaps, Patti trotted back out onto the field to end the half. It was a solid half of football, leading Pitt to just a touchdown deficit.
However, a rather poor interception midway through the third quarter, the UCLA pass rush forcing an errant, overthrown screen to Konata Mumpfield, resulted in an easy pick-six — and a 14-point Bruins lead.
Pitt needed Patti to step up, to deliver a performance of the ages, and he did.
— Pitt Football (@Pitt_FB) December 31, 2022
It wasn’t a perfect day for Patti, but it didn’t need to be. He showed up when he needed to.
His stat line (20-of-41 for 232 yards with a touchdown and an interception and 72 rush yards) doesn’t jump off the page, but it didn’t need to. With the game on the line, with 34 seconds on the clock and no timeouts, he showed up.
Patti went 2-of-2 for 35 yards and added an 11-yard rush to pick up a first down and allow Ben Sauls a chance to kick a game-winning field goal.
In a season when the starting quarterback wasn’t able to consistently make an impact, Patti was able to leave his mark on the game and then some.
A Defensive Performance to Define A Season
It certainly wasn’t easy-going for Pitt early, not as Dorian Thompson-Robinson led UCLA to touchdowns on the Bruins’ opening two possessions — and three of the first four possessions.
But after a 28-yard touchdown toss from Thompson-Robinson in the second quarter, Pitt’s defense allowed just one touchdown the rest of the game.
A Jaylin Davies pick-six pushed UCLA’s lead to 14 points midway through the third quarter, and after that point, the Pitt defense forced two three and outs, two interceptions and a turnover on downs.
Pitt picked off Thompson-Robinson three times, Garber once and jumped on a muffed kickoff in the second half — five key turnovers.
With seven tackles for loss and three sacks, Pitt’s pass rush — which was stagnant in the first half — came alive down the stretch to force enough havoc in the backfield to disrupt the UCLA game plan.
A dominant Thompson-Robinson first half evaporated in the second half, just 47 yards through the air and three interceptions, and Pitt limited UCLA to just 155 total yards and seven points.
It was a performance without the likes of Calijah Kancey, SirVocea Dennis, Deslin Alexandre, John Morgan, Habakkuk Baldonado and Brandon Hill. And it was enough to get the win.
Ben Sauls is Him
When Ben Sauls missed two field goals against Tennessee, there were calls for All-ACC kicker Sam Scarton to step back onto the field.
It was a surprise when Pat Narduzzi said that Sauls and Scarton were in open competition, and it was even more of a surprise when Sauls won the job in fall camp.
However, after two misses against Tennessee (two key misses, no less), and a miss to start the Western Michigan game a week later, he entered the Sun Bowl on a streak of nine straight conversions — including a career-long 51-yarder against Duke.
All he did against UCLA was convert all five of his field goal attempts and all three of his point-after attempts.
He opened the scoring with a 22-yarder, and he followed up with kicks of 49, 31 and 27 yards. And with the game on the line, four seconds on the clock, Sauls knocked a 47-yard field goal through the uprights to give Pitt the win.
Ben Sauls, more than good.
— Pitt Football (@Pitt_FB) December 31, 2022
It pushed Sauls’ season totals to 20-of-24 field goal attempts (83%) and 48-of-48 point-after attempts.
It’s hard to find a steady, reliable kicker at the collegiate level, but Pitt has that. A Sun Bowl win wouldn’t have been possible without Sauls.
Rodney Hammond Jr. Isn’t Going to Settle
It wasn’t a surprise to anyone that Rodney Hammond Jr. thrived when afforded the chance against UCLA.
He ran hard, seemingly inches away from busting a big play whenever he took a handoff from Patti, and he ran often. With 25 carries, racking up 89 yards and two touchdowns, he proved that he’s capable of carrying an offense — especially as the passing attack wasn’t utilized downfield much.
In games when Hammond is given a chance to shine, namely against West Virginia and Syracuse (44 carries for 198 yards — 4.5 yards per attempt — and three touchdowns), he’s shown up.
Standoff on the Border 🤠
🙌 @RodneyLHammond1 🙌
— Pitt Football (@Pitt_FB) December 30, 2022
Hammond showed up once again against UCLA, and it’s an excellent sign for the future of Pitt’s backfield.
Hammond may not have the explosive speed of his predecessor, but he’s a complete kind of running back with the shiftiness and hard-nosed power that thrives at the college level — and intrigues the next.
The Sun Bowl should just be the tip of the iceberg for Hammond.
Pat Narduzzi’s Risks Paid Off
I thought there was no way that Pat Narduzzi would go for it on 4th-and-1 from his own 31-yard line. But he did, and after a wild rugby-style conversion from Hammond, Pitt’s drive continued.
And it resulted in a key 49-yard field goal from Sauls to make it a 7-6 UCLA lead.
Again, I was surprised when Narduzzi elected to go for it on 4th-and-1 from his own 34-yard line, but once again, Hammond converted.
The drive resulted in a Hammond touchdown dive, cutting the lead from 14 to 7, after a UCLA pick-six. It was a must-have touchdown that wouldn’t have happened with a fourth down conversion.
And even with a failed fourth down attempt late in the fourth, on a play in which Sauls would’ve been able to attempt a long-ish field goal to ice the game, it didn’t derail the game.
UCLA would score, but after gaining 10 points off prior conversions, an eventual game winning Sauls field goal was enough.