Nose tackle Jay Bromley and the Syracuse defense needed a rest with the Orange protecting a one-point lead against Pittsburgh late in the game and Panthers quarterback Tino Sunseri itching for one more chance.
That chance never came, as Syracuse tailbacks Adonis Ameen-Moore, Jerome Smith and Prince-Tyson Gulley and quarterback Ryan Nassib ran the ball 10 times over the final 4:52 and Syracuse held on for a 14-13 victory Friday night.
”We just don’t play defense and call it a day,” Bromley said. ”We did our job and the offense did theirs.”
Linebacker Dyshawn Davis returned a fumble 52 yards for the Orange’s second score as Syracuse broke out of a yearlong funk. Syracuse (2-3, 1-0 Big East) hadn’t beaten a Football Bowl Subdivision team since last October, losing eight straight since a stunning win over a ranked West Virginia team.
Syracuse also snapped a seven-game losing streak against Pittsburgh (2-3, 0-2), which had won two straight.
Both teams were coming off bye weeks, and this was their last meeting as members of the Big East. Both will join the Atlantic Coast Conference next season, and they will continue to play one another each year.
Ameen-Moore, a sophomore with only 12 career carries entering the game, scored on a 1-yard run to cap Syracuse’s first possession and had 13 yards on four consecutive carries to end it.
”We had to be ready, tuned in to everything,” Ameen-Moore said. ”I haven’t scored a touchdown since I was in 12th grade. They trusted me to get the job done. It felt wonderful.”
Syracuse finally put together a solid game after four erratic efforts.
”The first half, the fumble returned for a touchdown, we did enough stuff to beat ourselves in many ways,” first-year Pitt coach Paul Chryst said. ”I thought going in Syracuse was a good team and I come away believing the same thing.”
The Orange scored first and never trailed, played well on special teams, converted that turnover into a touchdown, and pressured Sunseri when the game was on the line. Defensive end Brandon Sharpe broke through for three sacks, and when Sunseri seemed poised to give Pitt the lead late in the fourth quarter, the defense rose again against Pitt’s imposing offensive line, which averages 317 pounds.
Sunseri was called for intentional grounding and on the next play cornerback Brandon Reddish stormed in from the left side on a blitz and sacked Sunseri for a 9-yard loss and to force a punt. That all came after Sunseri had hit Devin Street for 15 yards, J.P. Holtz for another 15, and Mike Shanahan for 24 on consecutive plays to put the ball at the Syracuse 17.
”It felt great,” Orange defensive tackle Deon Goggins said. ”It finally felt like we was clicking. During the bye week we were working on little things and it came together.”
Sunseri finished 25 of 33 for 319 yards to move past John Congemi and Rod Rutherford to fourth-all time at Pitt with 6,765 yards. Street had a career-high 10 catches for 130 yards.
After starting the season in dismal fashion, losing by two touchdowns to Youngstown State, an FCS team, and Big East foe Cincinnati, Pitt had rallied nicely behind Chryst. The Panthers stunned then-No. 13 Virginia Tech 35-17, forcing the Hokies into four first-half turnovers, and two weeks ago evened the score against FCS teams with a 55-10 victory over Gardner-Webb.
The Panthers fell behind Syracuse by two touchdowns in the first quarter, managed to force only one turnover after getting seven the previous two games, and Sunseri couldn’t rally them again.
”We’ve got to be able to figure out the protection,” Sunseri said. ”We have to know that. It’s something you have to be able to recognize. Ultimately, it’s my job to right the ship on that, and I’ll be able to next time.”
Syracuse’s ho-huddle offense had produced lots of yardage in the first four games, but much of it had come in spurts after the Orange had fallen behind. Nassib was flawless the first time Syracuse had the ball against Pitt.
After forcing the Panthers into a three-and-out on the game’s first possession, Syracuse marched quickly for the first touchdown of the game, mixing the run with the pass as the Pitt defenders seemed to struggle to get a handle on the pace of play.
Nassib had four completions for 51 yards, while Smith and Gulley combined to rush for 18 yards to set up Moore’s touchdown at 9:54. Moore’s first career TD came on his first carry of the season.
Through four games, the Syracuse defense had produced only four turnovers (three interceptions and one fumble recovery) as the Orange struggled with one of the worst turnover margins in the country (minus-1.5).
Syracuse made it 14-0 late in the first on Davis’ fumble return. Sunseri hit Drew Carswell for a short gain near midfield. Carswell lost the ball after a hit by Jeremi Wilkes, and Davis scooped it up and scored untouched down the right side.
Coming into the Syracuse game, Sunseri ranked as the Big East’s most efficient passer (15th nationally) with a 166.80 rating, and he combined with Street to rally the Panthers.
Sunseri was 16 of 21 for 187 yards in the first half, and eight of those passes went to Street for 107 yards. Street’s 14-yard catch over the middle on a third-and-7 from the Syracuse 20 set up Graham’s 1-yard scoring run, which came on third down after some spirited play by the Orange front.
Kevin Harper’s 40-yard field goal pulled Pitt within 14-10 at halftime, and he hit a 27-yarder late in the third to make it 14-13. Sunseri set up the second with a gutsy throw as he was being hit, somehow finding Shanahan for a 46-yard gain down the left side.