Call it bad luck or poor execution, but for the third time this season Pitt lost a game in the final minute despite having the ball inside its opponent’s 5-yard line.
Instead of blaming a questionable call that turned a go-ahead touchdown catch into a 15-yard pass interference penalty, Panthers coach Dave Wannstedt chose to look at the 20-16 loss at Rutgers from a broader scope.
“It shouldn’t,” he said, “come down to one play.”
And it didn’t.
Pitt (4-6, 2-3) consistently failed to capitalize on its chances to seize control of a game Rutgers did its best to blow. The Panthers scored only one touchdown despite causing four turnovers, starting five drives inside the Rutgers 40, maintaining a 9:14 time-of-possession edge and outgaining the Scarlet Knights, 268-219.
Here are 13 plays that compromised Pitt’s fate:
* 1. With a fourth-and-5 at the Rutgers 36, the Panthers lined up in field-goal formation. Instead of kicking a 53-yarder, Conor Lee took a direct snap and punted … for 4 yards.
* 2. After Kennard Cox intercepted a pass on the ensuing drive and returned it to the Rutgers 23, LeSean McCoy ran three times for 7 yards. Pitt was forced to settle for a 33-yard Lee field goal to tie it at 3-3.
* 3. Following a Darrell Strong touchdown reception for a 10-3 lead, Cox was burned on a 53-yard touchdown pass from Mike Teel to Kenny Britt that tied the game. Rutgers accounted for 81 of its 219 yards on its two touchdowns.
“For us to play a complete game, you have to eliminate those big plays,” middle linebacker Scott McKillop said. “You take away those two big plays and that’s 14 points.”
* 4. McKillop intercepted a pass at the Rutgers 31, but Pitt failed to convert a third-and-4 at the 14 and Lee missed a 31-yard field goal wide left. Rutgers led, 17-10, at halftime.
“We created three turnovers (by) the half and we go in and we’re behind,” Wannstedt said. “We need to put the ball in the end zone.”
* 5. After McKillop and Adam Gunn teamed for an 8-yard sack to the Rutgers 20, Aaron Berry allowed a punt to roll past him to Pitt’s 17. The 63-yarder was the longest of Jeremy Ito’s career, and Pitt promptly went three and out.
* 6. The first questionable pass interference penalty came when cornerback Jovani Chappel, who replaced Cox, deflected a third-and-7 pass intended for Tiquan Underwood. Rutgers got a first down at Pitt’s 29, and Ray Rice scored two plays later on a 28-yard run.
* 7. Following a 16-yard run by McCoy on a third-and-14, Pat Bostick took a pair of sacks in a three-play sequence for losses totaling 13 yards. Pitt was forced to punt.
* 8. On a drive that started at the Rutgers 40, McCoy turned a swing pass into a 17-yard gain but lost a fumble at the 23. A touchdown there would have tied the game, but Pitt came away empty-handed.
* 9. On a third-and-4 at the Rutgers 5, McCoy gained only 1 yard, forcing Lee to kick a 21-yard field goal to cut it to 17-13 with 16 seconds left in the third quarter.
* 10. After Shane Murray’s blindside hit forced a fumble that Scott McKillop recovered at the Rutgers 21, Pitt came out in the Wildcat formation and McCoy was dropped for a 5-yard loss. The drive ended with Lee’s 32-yard field goal that cut it to 17-16 with 11:05 remaining.
* 11. One late Rutgers drive involved three mishaps. On a second-and-12, Rice slipped through the arms of Murray and broke a 19-yard run to the Pitt 45. The Scarlet Knights later benefited from a 15-yard personal foul penalty against defensive end Greg Romeus. Then Pitt safety Eric Thatcher dropped a potential interception in the end zone, allowing Ito to kick a 30-yard field goal for a 20-16 lead.
If Thatcher catches a ball that hit him square in the numbers, Pitt needs only a field goal to win the game.
* 12. With a second-and-8 at the Rutgers 45, right guard John Bachman was flagged 5 yards for a false start. On third-and-13, Kevan Smith was injured when sacked for a 10-yard loss that forced the Panthers to punt.
* 13. A third-and-7 pass to Strong went for a 28-yard gain, but could have been a touchdown if the 6-foot-5, 255-pound tight end had run for the pylon instead of turning inside, where he was tackled at the Rutgers 6.
“We had so many opportunities to win that game,” fifth-year senior right tackle Mike McGlynn said. “The defense had four turnovers and we don’t come out and capitalize, turn those turnovers into touchdowns.”
Finally, Oderick Turner was flagged after catching Bostick’s fade pass. Instead of a touchdown, Pitt had a third-and-goal at the 21 and threw an interception.
That left it to chance, and when it comes to luck in the last minute, Pitt has proven its chances aren’t very good.
Not only did Scott McKillop play the game of his career, he handled post-game interviews with the kind of class appropriate of the team’s top leader.
McKillop should be a lock for Big East Defensive Player of the Week after making 16 tackles (10 solo), 2.5 tackles for losses of 12 yards – including 1.5 sacks for minus-11 yards – two fumble recoveries, two pass breakups, a forced fumble and an interception.
More importantly, he didn’t point fingers at the offense for not taking advantage of the turnovers but rather at the defense for giving up two big scoring plays.
Accountability: It starts with the man in the mirror.
* Although McCoy had perhaps his worst game of the season, with 22 carries for 60 yards, he is still on pace to break the Big East’s freshman single-season rushing record.
McCoy moved ahead of Rutgers’ Ray Rice into fourth place, with 1,120 yards. McCoy should pass West Virginia’s Steve Slaton (1,128) and Avon Cobourne (1,139) against South Florida, and needs 142 yards to pass all-time leader Terrell Willis of Rutgers (1,261).
* On the injury front, tight end John Pelusi (turf toe) did not dress, and defensive end Chris McKillop started but was limited by a separated shoulder. Also, Joe Thomas returned to the starting lineup at right guard but shared time with John Bachman.