A 14-point favorite entering its Big East opener at Syracuse, Pitt twice rallied from 11-point deficits for a 34-24 victory this afternoon before an announced crowd of 27,549 at the Carrier Dome.
LaRod Stephens-Howling sandwiched fourth-quarter touchdowns on runs of 9 and 3 yards around Conor Lee’s school record-tying fourth field goal of the game, and the Panthers’ defense came up a big turnover to help clinch the victory.
Syracuse (1-4, 0-1) held a 24-13 lead early in the third quarter, but the Panthers turned to Stephens-Howling and LeSean McCoy, who broke the 100-yard mark for the first time this season. McCoy finished with 147 yards on 27 carries, breaking a 34-yard run in the second half to set up the game-tying touchdown.
Pitt (3-1, 1-0) took the lead on Conor Lee’s 25-yard field goal for a 27-24 advantage with 9:17 remaining. It was Lee’s fourth of the game, which tied a school record shared by Carson Long (against William & Mary in 1975), Nick Lotz (Temple, 2001) and David Abdul (Boston College, 2002).
Defensive end Greg Romeus sacked Syracuse quarterback Cameron Dantley, forcing a fumble that was recovered by fellow end Jabaal Sheard at the Orange 34 with 8:05 remaining.
Pitt outgained Syracuse, 411-259, in yards total offense, and had 23 first downs to the Orange’s 12.
McCoy broke a season-best 34-yard run to the Syracuse 32 just before the third quarter ended. Stephens-Howling started the fourth quarter, and followed a 20-yard gain with a 9-yard touchdown run, his first of the season. Stephens-Howling finished with 71 yards on 13 carries.
The Panthers went for a two-point conversion, and it worked when Bill Stull (17 of 29 for 166 yards passing) found freshman Jonathan Baldwin in the left side of the end zone to tie the game at 24-24 with 14:26 remaining.
The Orange stretched its four-point halftime lead to 24-13 when Cameron Dantley connected with Van Chew, who beat cornerback Aaron Berry and made a diving catch for a 36-yard touchdown pass with 12:40 remaining.
Curtis Brinkley became the second consecutive rusher to surpass the 100-yard mark against the Panthers, with 119 yards on 16 carries. Iowa’s Shonn Greene had 147 yards in a 21-20 loss to Pitt last week.
Pitt answered with a scoring drive that ended with a 44-yard field goal by Lee to make it 24-16 with 7:20 left in the quarter. Lee’s 40-yarder gave Pitt a 3-0 lead at 10 minutes, 37 seconds of the first quarter. Mike Holmes returned the ensuing kickoff by Lucas Briggs 90 yards for a touchdown 10 seconds later to give the Orange a 7-3 lead.
It marked the first time an opponent returned a kickoff for a touchdown against Pitt since the 2001 Tangerine Bowl, when North Carolina State’s Gregory Golden also scored on a 90-yard return.
Syracuse then forced a three-and-out, and took over at its own 45. Brinkley gained 24 yards on five carries before Dantley threw a 27-yard touchdown pass to Donte Davis for a 14-3 lead at 5:42.
One of the calls that backfired for the Orange came after they took a shot at the end zone with a third-down pass. On fourth-and-1 at the Pitt 38, Syracuse tried to lure Pitt offsides but instead drew a delay-of-game penalty that forced a punt.
Pitt had a 10-play, 79-yard scoring drive capped by a 2-yard pass from Bill Stull to Dorin Dickerson to cut Syracuse’s lead to 14-13. Lee drilled a 43-yard field goal to make it 14-6 with 12:10 left.
Pitt got a break on its scoring drive when defensive end Mikhail Marinovich was called for a facemask on Stull, whose attempt to throw the ball out of bounds was intercepted. The Panthers converted a third-and-10 on a swing pass to Stephens-Howling, who gained 14 yards to the Orange 4.
Brinkley made five defenders miss in breaking a 37-yard run to the Pitt 12. But the Orange gained only 5 yards, and Patrick Shadle kicked a 25-yard field goal as the first half expired.