IOWA CITY, IA - Pitt led by 21 points in the third quarter and 17 in the fourth quarter, but Iowa scored unanswered touchdowns on three consecutive fourth-quarter possessions and the Panthers fell into a 31-27 loss at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday.
For Iowa, the win was the biggest comeback in school history, while the fall-from-ahead loss was Pitt's biggest collapse since blowing a 21-point lead against Cincinnati in December of 2009.
"When you're on the road in a place like this, you have to close it out," Pitt coach Todd Graham said after the game. "We talked about it when we were three scores up that you have to finish; you can't let up and play not to lose."
The loss was the first of Graham's tenure at Pitt.
The collapse began late in the third quarter. After Tino Sunseri connected with Drew Carswell for a six-yard touchdown pass to give Pitt a 24-3 lead in the third quarter, Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg went on a tear, connecting on 17 of his final 20 passes for 217 yards and three touchdowns.
Vanderberg also scored a rushing touchdown over that span, but the best Pitt could muster was a 39-yard field goal from Kevin Harper early in the fourth quarter. Otherwise, the Panthers' fourth-quarter drives consisted of a failed fourth-down attempt, a punt, and a game-ending interception on Pitt's final drive of the game.
The pick was Sunseri's second of the game and fourth of the season. He finished the game 23-of-33 for 255 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions.
"I feel like plays were left out there on my part," Sunseri said. "I just have to finish plays and put the ball on people when they're open and make sure we don't turn the ball over and just play for four quarters."
Sunseri and the offense failed to do its part in the final quarter, but Pitt's defense has a considerable amount of culpability. After holding Iowa to just three points until a minute before the end of the third quarter, the Panthers fell apart on defense.
Iowa's first touchdown drive started at the 40 following a kickoff out of bounds. From there, Vandenberg hit a trio of passes and ran in from one-yard out to cut the lead to 24-10. Pitt kicked a field goal, and then Vandenberg completed 7-of-7 passes for 73 yards and a touchdown. The next time the Hawkeyes got the ball, Vandenberg hit on 5-of-7 passes for 62 yards, ran for a first down, and threw a touchdown pass to cut Pitt's lead to 27-24. And Vandenberg did the damage on the game-winning drive, too.
Of course, Pitt helped Iowa's cause on both of the final two drives. Twice the Panthers were called for penalties in the secondary and both penalties came on third-down plays. Buddy Jackson was flagged for pass interference on a third-and-3, and Iowa made the score 27-24 two plays later. On the next drive, Andrew Taglianetti was called for defensive holding on third-and-5; again, Iowa scored two plays later.
"It's nothing they did. Not at all," redshirt senior defensive tackle Chas Alecxih said after the game. "It was something we did. We beat the absolute heck out of them for three-and-a-half quarters, and then we just didn't finish the game."
"They executed; they had the momentum and we didn't have the answers for it," Graham said. "We have to do a better job. We didn't execute the coverages as well as we needed to down the stretch. All game long we did, and then we didn't at the end of the game. It's been the same thing for three weeks, and to me that's coaching. We have to get it done."