Kevin Gorman’s Take 5: Pitt wins a wild one over Syracuse in overtime
It rained on Pitt’s homecoming, and Syracuse had little to do with it.
During a downpour Saturday afternoon at Heinz Field, the Panthers poured it on the Orange with big plays and record-setting field goals to rally from a 14-point deficit to take a halftime lead.
A one-hour delay for lightning and severe weather stole Pitt’s momentum, and Syracuse took advantage with a 17-point swing before the Panthers bounced back.
This one, however, would take overtime to settle.
1. Digging a hole: The Steelers aren’t the only team in town that plays better from behind at Heinz Field.
Syracuse scored on the opening drive, taking advantage of a pass interference penalty by Damar Hamlin on a third-and-3 at the Pitt 33. The 11-play, 75-yard drive was capped by tight end Aaron Hackett’s 1-yard touchdown from Eric Dungey for a 7-0 lead.
The Panthers then lost a fumble on a sweep by Shocky Jacques-Louis at their 42, which led to Syracuse scoring after Dungey’s 29-yard run set up a 2-yard touchdown by Jarveon Howard for a 14-0 lead at 6:32 of the first quarter.
And Pitt’s Retro Weekend -- where the Panthers wore their old royal and mustard gold uniforms -- was starting to look like a throwback to the wrong Johnny Majors era.
2. Q Factor: Suddenly, Qadree Ollison changed everything.
The 6-foot-2, 225-pound senior running back is a bruiser known for running downhill but not for his breakaway speed. So it wasn’t as stunning to see him break two tackles as it was to see him break away from defenders on a 69-yard scoring run to cut it to 14-7 at 5:47.
Syracuse had little luck stopping Ollison, who rushed for 89 yards on seven carries in the first half and had 89 on eight carries -- an average of 12.9 per -- when the game was stopped for severe weather early in the third quarter.
The defense finally helped Pitt’s cause.
3. Great Dane: The Panthers had no answer for Dungey, as the Syracuse quarterback ran 29 yards to set up one touchdown and converted a third-and-6 with an 8-yard gain.
As Dungey struggled in the pass game and resorted to the run, the Panthers pounced. Linebacker Quintin Wirginis stripped Dungey, and cornerback Dane Jackson recovered and returned the fumble 35 yards for a touchdown to tie it at 14-14 at 4:21.
It was Jackson’s second career touchdown. The other also came against Syracuse (2016).
It was the kind of break Pitt’s defense needed, after giving up 45 points at UCF, 38 at North Carolina and 51 to Penn State in the Panthers’ three losses.
And it wouldn’t be the last.
4. Just for kicks: Syracuse missed another opportunity Dungey threw right with Taj Harris wide open near the Pitt sideline, setting up a third-and-14 from its own 5.
When Dungey threw a pass to Moe Neal at the 1, Pitt cornerback Jason Pinnock knocked Neal into the end zone and an official signaled for a safety. A review determined that Neal was out at the 1, but Syracuse was forced to punt out of its own end zone.
Just as the rain started falling, Alex Kessman trotted onto the field to attempt a 54-yard field goal. It sailed through the uprights with room to spare, giving the Panthers their first lead, 17-14, at 12:26 of the second quarter.
The defense came up big again, as defensive tackle Amir Watts dropped into coverage and intercepted a pass at the Syracuse 48. Pitt’s offense was stopped again and the Panthers turned to Kessman, this time for a 55-yard field goal and a 20-14 lead.
Here’s the interesting part: Although Kessman set a Heinz Field record for longest field goal by breaking the mark of 54 yards set by Old Dominion’s Jarod Brown in 2013, it was only the second-longest of his career.
Kessman’s longest? A 56-yarder -- at Syracuse.
5. Playing for the tie: Pitt had a double-digit lead after Rafael Arajuo-Lopes scored on a 68-yard touchdown pass from Kenny Pickett to make it 27-17.
But Dungey found Harris for passes of 27 and 22 yards to set up Howard’s 5-yard touchdown run to make it 27-24.
Syracuse took the lead with 21 seconds left in the third quarter when Dungey finished a 21-yard run by diving for the pylon for a 31-27 lead. The Orange added a field goal in the fourth quarter for a 17-point swing and 34-27 lead.
But the Panthers answered with runs of 29 by Ollison and 25 by Darrin Hall, who finished a five-play, 75-yard scoring drive with a 7-yard touchdown run to tie it at 34-34 with 7:51 left.
Pitt ran the ball 11 times in a row, converting a fourth-and-3 at its 48 on a direct snap to Ollison, and played for the field goal.
Kessman lined up for a 45-yarder with eight seconds left and drilled it right down the middle to cap a 13-play, 48-yard drive that covered 5:45 and tie the game at 37-37.
6. Going to overtime: The Panthers relied on Ollison and Hall in overtime, as well, and Syracuse had no answer.
Hall took a direct snap for a 3-yard touchdown, but there was the question of whether the ball crossed the plane of the goal line before his elbow hit. It held up under review, and Pitt took a 44-37 lead.
On first down, Dungey threw for the end zone and defensive back Therran Coleman picked it off in the end zone to set off a wild scene where the Panthers charged the field to celebrate a pivotal ACC victory.
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