Panther-lair – From 4-4 to 9-4, Pitt’s turnaround ends with Sun Bowl win
On the morning of Oct. 30, things looked scary, and it wasn’t just because Halloween was right around the corner.
That day, Pitt was licking its wounds after a demoralizing loss at North Carolina, the Panthers’ third defeat in a brutal four-game stretch that covered the month of October.
It started with one of the worst losses in Pat Narduzzi’s tenure at Pitt, a 26-21 loss to Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets were five days removed from firing their head coach, and that loss dropped the Panthers out of the top 25.
They would not return, even after Israel Abanikanda broke Tony Dorsett’s single-game rushing record in a win over Virginia Tech. Whatever mojo was gained from that game evaporated quickly with a turnover-crippled performance in a loss at Louisville two weeks later, and the bad mojo continued on the final Saturday of the month when Pitt went to Chapel Hill.
At that point, Pitt had gone from a promising 3-1 at the end of September to a very concerning 4-4 at the end of October. The November schedule looked challenging, with Duke and Syracuse as upstart darlings and a season-ending road trip to Miami as a penciled-in loss.
Given all of that, what had started as a season with not-so-hushed-tone mentions of an outside shot at a playoff bid had turned into a very realistic chance of not even making a bowl.
The fall from the previous season’s ACC championship had been severe, and the final month of the schedule seemed like it could spell doom.
Instead, the team rallied. They did enough to knock off Syracuse at Acrisure Stadium to open November. They put their feet on Virginia’s throats right from the start the next week. They hung on to outlast Duke and ACC coach of the year Mike Elko in the home finale. And in the most improbable result of all, they went to Miami for the regular-season finale and absolutely bludgeoned the Hurricanes.
Pitt had stepped back from the edge of the cliff, where they had so precariously danced at 4-4 to end October, and rallied for an encouraging four-game winning streak to end the regular season.
That just left the bowl game.
As fate would have it, the bowl-selection gods sent Pitt back to El Paso, site of such previous ignominious moments in history as “3-0” and a miserable performance that sealed Shawn Watson’s fate. The Panthers drew UCLA as their postseason dancing partner after the Bruins’ 8-1 start turned into a 9-3 finish and a No. 18 ranking in the final College Football Playoff rankings.
For UCLA, the Sun Bowl represented the program’s first bowl appearance since 2017 and an opportunity to win a postseason game for the first time 2015, not to mention an opportunity to match the program record of 10 wins in a season.
What’s more, the Bruins appeared to be entering the game at full strength, while Pitt would be playing without its starting quarterback, starting running back, All-American defensive tackle, top three defensive ends, starting middle linebacker and starting safety.
Whatever luck or momentum the Panthers had generated in November would surely fade under such circumstances, leaving Narduzzi to guide Pitt to an 8-5 record for the fourth time in eight seasons.
Except it didn’t happen. The winning didn’t end in November. Pitt’s players and coaches didn’t let it end. They didn’t let it end when Abanikanda and Calijah Kancey and SirVocea Dennis and Brandon Hill opted out. They didn’t let it end when Kedon Slovis transferred. They didn’t let it end when UCLA went up 14-6 or 28-14.
They didn’t even let it end when UCLA took a one-point lead with 34 seconds left in the Sun Bowl.
Just like they did throughout November, Pitt’s players and coaches fought back. Whatever disappointment lingered from the missed opportunity of 2022 might have been didn’t have a place at Sun Bowl Stadium when Nick Patti led the Panthers’ offense onto the field, taking the ball at their own 25 with no timeouts and not much time to drive into field goal range.
And that’s exactly what they did. Three plays and a spike to set up a 47-yard field goal that proved to be no problem for Ben Sauls.
Final score: Pitt 37, UCLA 35
Final record: Pitt 9-4
Somehow, this Pitt team rallied to turn 4-4 into 9-4, winning five in a row for the second time in Narduzzi’s tenure.
The other time the Panthers produced a five-game winning streak under Narduzzi was last season, when they finished the regular season with four consecutive wins and topped it off with a victory in the ACC Championship Game.
This year’s five-game winning streak didn’t produce a conference title. But it did resurrect a season that was all but left for dead at the end of November.