Pitt blows 25-point, fourth-quarter lead, falls in Armed Services Bowl

Houston offensive lineman Rowdy Harper (74) lifts running back Kenneth Farrow (35) in the air as the Cougars took the lead during against the Pittsburgh Panthers the second half of the 2015 Armed Forces Bowl. Pitt allowed Houston to score 29 fourth-quarter points to come from behidn to win.

Raymond Carlin III/Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

For three quarters the Pitt Panthers controlled the flow of the Armed Services Bowl. Pitt entered the fourth quarter with a 24-6 lead, and extended the lead to 31-6 just 62 seconds into the final frame.

But the Houston Cougars woke up in the final 14 minutes of the game, and outscored Pitt 29-3 over than span to win on a two-point conversion with under two minutes to play.

Here are four observations from Pitt’s utter collapse, and Houston’s 35-34 Armed Services Bowl won:

THE PANTHERS WERE ABUSED ON DEFENSE AND SPECIAL TEAMS IN THE FOURTH QUARTER

With 13:58 to play in the game, Pitt had to feel very comfortable with its 31-6 lead. That comfort sure played out negatively as the team seemed shell-shocked after Houston came to life.

The Panthers’ defense held Houston to 193 yards (64.3 per quarter) and just six points through the first three quarters. Cougars quarterback Greg Ward Jr. was kept to just 4-for-10 passing and zero scores over that time frame.

The Cougars seemed stuck in the mud with little fight for almost 46 minutes.

But Houston started pushing back with a Kenneth Farrow touchdown run with 10:43 to play. Pitt answered with a field goal, but then the Cougars rattled off 22 unanswered points.

Allowing the points they did in the fourth quarter was bad enough for Pitt, but the way it all went down was an absolute nightmare.

Pitt allowed Houston to score 29 points (to only three Panthers’ points) in the final 10:43 of the game. Houston totaled 293 fourth-quarter yards and Ward was 11 for 14 with three touchdown passes in that time.

The Panthers had a miserable time tackling, and couldn’t get off the field as they allowed Ward to go 4 for 5 on third-down attempts.

It wasn’t just bad defense that hurt Pitt. Its special-teams play was atrocious.

Houston was able to convert on two onside kicks to hand possession back to the Cougars, but the death blow came after a Deontay Greenberry touchdown catch brought the game to 34-33 with 59 seconds to play.

The Cougars could have kicked the extra point and went into overtime with all the momentum in the world. But Ward rolled out to his right, directed traffic for a few seconds, and then pasted Greenberry with a successful two-point-converting pass.

Up 35-34, all Houston had to do was hold off Pitt for 59 seconds.

KARMA MAY HAVE COME BACK TO BITE TYLER BOYD ON PITT’S FINAL DRIVE

With 59 seconds to play, all Pitt had to do was get into field-goal range, and successfully nail a kick to win the Armed Services Bowl.

As the Panthers were driving the field, Chad Voytik targeted Tyler Boyd on the left side of the field. The pass missed the receiver, who was being covered by two Houston defensive backs.

As Boyd slowed himself after the incompletion, he kicked one of the Houston defenders with his knee as the defensive back had knelt down in an effort to get the pass. It wasn’t a hard kick, and likely didn’t cause any pain, but it was a shady moment from Boyd’s day.

As Boyd walked back to the huddle, he blew a kiss to the Houston defensive back.

Two plays later, Boyd was targeted again by a Voytik pass. This one was a post pattern where Boyd was wide open at the 25-yard line. Had he caught the pass and been stopped there, Pitt would have been in field-goal range. More than likely, though, Boyd would have ran after the catch for some time. He was that open.

Instead, Boyd dropped the pass that hit him directly in the hands. It was the second time in the game a ball hit Boyd squarely in the hands, and he dropped it.

PITT’S BEST OFFENSIVE WEAPON WAS RENDERED USELESS ON THE FINAL DRIVE OF THE GAME

James Conner not only led the ACC in 2014 with 1,675 rushing yards, his 24 touchdowns on the ground far outpaced any other conference rusher. Pitt’s success is typically tied to Conner’s.

Conner crossed the goal line twice on Friday, on scores on 1 yard and 6. But his total yardage was held in check by Houston. He gained 90 yards on the day, but 28 of those came in what Pitt expected was garbage time — when the Panthers had a 31-13 lead.

When the Panthers needed their go-to offensive tool the most, they were unable to call his number because Pitt had to drive the field and get into field-goal range in under a minute. Because the Panthers had only one time out to play with, it was impossible to hand the ball off to Conner.

Conner didn’t have a bad day, and the Panthers did not lose because he didn’t go over the 100-yard mark. Had Pitt been able to utilize his services, however, the outcome in the end could have been a lot different.

PAT NARDUZZI EXPERIENCED TWO POLAR-OPPOSITE FINISHES TO ‘HIS’ TEAMS IN THE SPAN OF 24 HOURS

Pitt’s new head coach Pat Narduzzi watched the game from a luxury suite with the university Chancellor. He was unable to help as his new team was handed a terrible fourth-quarter beatdown.

As painful as it must have been to watch as the guys he would coach next season gave up such a huge lead, the feeling must have been bittersweet.

A day earlier, Narduzzi’s old team, Michigan State, scored 21 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to beat Baylor, 42-41. The Spartans’ final strike came with just 17 seconds on the clock to win the game.

To even more closely tie to the two games together, they were both in the same metro area. Narduzzi joined the Pitt radio broadcast during the game and told the story about how he and his family ate breakfast with the Michigan State team Friday morning in nearby Arlington, Texas, then went back to their room to change out of their Spartans gear and into Pitt attire.

The Narduzzi family then drove to Dallas to watch the Pitt game.

In a little under 24 hours, Narduzzi witnessed a fourth-quarter miracle comeback from the team he was departing, then watched his new team choke away a 25-point lead in the fourth quarter.

What an emotional roller coaster.