Pitt Falls Flat At UConn

David Butler II-US PRESSWIRE

Since UConn joined the Big East in 2004, Pitt is 1-4 at UConn, including tonight's loss. Pitt now must win both of its final games to remain bowl eligible.

Pitt made a game of it in the second half, after a lethargic first half. Call it too little too late, or Pitt falling flat to start, the Panthers simply did not respond in a 24-17 loss at UConn.

The loss drops Pitt to 4-6 on the season, 1-4 in Big East play. UConn gets its first Big East win of the season and is an identical 4-6 overall and 1-4 in the Big East. Mathematically, Pitt is still alive for a bowl bid. Things get a lot tougher with the loss. I addition to UConn holding a tiebreaker over Pitt if both teams win out, Pitt is forced to win both of its remaining games.

"Obviously we're disappointed with the outcome of the game," head coach Paul Chryst said. "We give UConn credit, they made plays, like the big one on the punt return. They were efficient on offense, and we weren't very good in the first half. In the second half, the guys came out and fought, but we didn't get it done."

"We were out-executed."

Devin Street led the Pitt offense with 6 catches for 76 yards. Drew Carswell had a career game with 5 catches for 83 yards and a touchdown. Pitt's ground game was a non-factor. Coming off a season-high 172 yards, Ray Graham was held to 41 yards on 15 carries. Rushel Shell saw more action, but not much more--23 yards on six carries.

The passing game did nothing to help matters. Tino Sunseri completed 19-for-34 for 304 yards and 2 touchdown passes. He wasn't intercepted, but was sacked three times and had countless opportunities with wide-open receivers and did not connect. Not to mention, he was just 8-18 to start.

UConn's run defense was expected to be a strength--allowing just 114 yards a game entering tonight's contest--lived up to the billing. They held Pitt to just 48 yards rushing. It was UConn's run offense against Pitt's defense that was a little more startling. Te huskies entered the game averaging just 82 yards a game on the ground. They finished with 132; 120 alone from Lyle McCombs.

"Obvously, coaches can only go so far in game-planning," Sunseri said after the game. "Players have to be able to execute, and we weren't executing in the first half."

UConn was clicking right from The Opening drive. passed to Ryan Griffin twice for 6 yards. On UConn's first third down, when they got to the Pitt 13, Chandler Whitmer took a draw for a gain of 8. The Huskies looked unstoppable on the opening drive. The only plus for Pitt was a false start penalty for the Huskies. Despite the five-yard penalty, McCombs ran the ball for 8 yards. The very next play, Whitmer found Griffin for the 2-yard touchdown pass. Whitmer was a perfect 3-3 on that opening series; completing all three passes to Griffin for a total of 38 yards.

Pitt went out with a whimper on their first series--three plays and out. Though UConn had to settle for a field goal on its second drive, the Huskies continued to move the ball with ease. Whitmer completed another 4 passes in 6 attempts for a total of 55 yards. Despite having to settle for a 29-yard field goal, UConn was up 10-0, and had the ball for nearly 12 minutes to start the game.

Pitt was able to get a couple of first downs on its next series. With a lot of the focus on Ray Graham--defenders swarming to him, keeping eight in the box--Sunseri was able to find tight end Drew Carswell over the middle, twice on the next drive. And, when it wasn't UConn converting third downs, they sure knew how to stop Pitt on third down. Sunseri tried to hit Graham on a short screen pass. It looked like Graham was his last check down on the play. By the time Graham got the ball, he had multiple defenders on him and was dropped for a loss.

Kevin Harper came on for a 44-yard field goal try from the right hash, but the kick bounced off the right upright. UConn still led 10-0 with 13:13 left in the first half.

Pitt got the ball back after UConn's first punt of the game, at their own 33 with 11:01 left in the half. Rushel Shell entered the game, and despite a few yards on the first play, the Pitt offense left the field with nothing again.

Then, it happened again. Nick Williams--who returned a 93-yard kickoff for a touchdown the last time Pitt was at Rentschler Field--took off untouched for an 80-yard punt return for a touchdown. It was Williams' fourth career return for a touchdown; two of which came against Pitt.

The Pitt offense needed a big lift after that punt return; after they already needed a spark. The offense could not deliver again, outside of a third 18-yard reception from Carswell--Sunseri could not connect with a wide-open Devin Street downfield. Pitt had to punt the ball at for the third time of the game.

When it wasn't offense, defense, or the return game, UConn showed it could down punts--successfully pinning the Panthers at their own 2. With a 17-0 lead, and 3:13 left in the first half, UConn was running and throwing the ball with ease, making key stops on third down, getting big plays from the return game, converting field goals. Paul Chryst is big on mentioning all 'facets' of the game. It was UConn clicking on all facets, so far.

On the next UConn drive, the Huskies all but clinched it. The sequence leading up to the 2-yard touchdown run from Lyle McCombs was a microcosm of disaster for Pitt. After a 23-yard completion to Griffin--who was already having a career night--Tyrone Ezell s flagged for a personal foul. And, to boot, Jason Hendricks went down injured on the play. UConn took a 24-0 lead with a little over a minute left in the half, and would hold Pitt to that score.

Pitt finally got on the board in the opening drive of the second half. The big play leading to the score was a 39-yard completion from Sunseri to Mike Shanahan. Despite the big play, however, the offense couldn't get started again, after the first down. Pitt settled for a 42-yard field goal from Harper, who converted from the same right hash he missed from earlier.

Pitt got a big play on defense--a sack on third down--from Anthony Gonzalez. It was Gonzalez' first play on defense of the season, which helped give Pitt the ball back with 5:52 left in the third.

With no offensive spark of anything, why not wait until the fourth quarter for the offense to get clicking. That's exactly what Pitt did, marching 72 yards in six plays, taking just 2:12 off the clock. Sunseri finally found a wide-open Street, completing a pass for 24 yards over the middle. Sunseri was having some success finding Carswell of the middle earlier. Finally, he was able to get Pitt's leading receiver involved in the game. Street caught a 22-yarder on the next play, setting it up for Susneri to find a wide open Carswell for an 11-yard touchdown pass.

The Pitt defense answered, forcing a punt on the next UConn series. UConn did get one first down, but the defense tightens up thanks to a Todd Thomas sack, and the defensive line tightening up--shutting down the UConn ground game.

Pitt got the ball back, down by two touchdowns, and 10:41 remaining. That offense that had shown signs of life in its previous series, fell flat on its face on the next series. A three-and-out, fittingly closed off with another sack on third down from the UConn defense.

McCombs tacked on a 39-yard run later in the fourth quarter--his longest run of the year, which put him over 100 yards for the game. Jarred Holley bailed out the defense, picking off a pass in the end zone.

The interception ended up being a 14-point swing. UConn was knocking on the door, ready to make it a 31-10 game. After Holley's pick, the Pitt offense answered--this time with an 18-yard touchdown pass from Sunseri to Mike Shanahan. Pitt made it a touchdown game with 2:46 left. Sunseri was 6-8 for 80 yards on the drive, including completions of 23 yards and 20 yards to Cameron Saddler.

UConn clinched the game with a 17-yard completion from Whitmer to Shakim Phillips. Shane Gordon broke through on the play, and actually had Whitmer by the ankles, but Whitmer was still able to throw the ball.

"We just came out slow," linebacker Todd Thomas said. "We just didn't come out with the energy."

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