Hartford, Conn. - Early in the second quarter of Pitt's 30-28 loss at Connecticut Thursday night, the Panthers (5-4, 3-1) faced an interesting situation. Trailing 10-7, Pitt had driven to the Huskies' 42, but a Dion Lewis run on third-and-1 was stuffed at the line.
Facing fourth-and-1, Dave Wannstedt opted to take a shot. It was a reasonable decision, since Pitt's offense had moved the ball relatively well on each of the previous two drives, and a converted fourth down would give the Panthers a chance to get back on top of the Huskies.
But things fell apart.
"After the (third-down) play, there was some talking back and forth between players," Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri said after the game. "We just talked a little too much and we didn't get back into the huddle and get back up to the line."
Instead, the offense was rushed out of the huddle, and as Sunseri tried to get the receivers lined up properly, the play clock ticked down. Center Alex Karabin failed to recognize the shortage of time and didn't get the snap off, but before the officials could penalize Pitt for delay of game, the right side of the Panthers' offensive line jumped at the sight of ":01" on the play clock.
The result was a five-yard penalty, a fourth-and-6 from the 47, and a punt. The failed attempt to run a play on fourth down might not have been a primary factor in Pitt's loss to Connecticut, but it was a microcosm of the circumstances that led to the Panthers' first conference loss of the season:
Pitt lost to Connecticut on Thursday night, but the outcome was determined more by the Panthers' actions than those of the Huskies.
In fact, outside of Jordan Todman, Connecticut's outstanding running back who rushed for a career-high 222 yards, the Huskies did little as a team to secure the victory. UConn quarterback Zach Frazer completed 9-of-20 passes for 100 yards and 1 interception, and the Huskies were 3-of-14 on third down. On defense, UConn gave up 152 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns to Lewis and Ray Graham, allowed Sunseri to complete 71% of his passes, and stopped Pitt on just half of its third down attempts.
Pitt's chances were so plentiful on Thursday night that Connecticut need a fourth-down conversion of its own with less than three minutes remaining in the game to lock up the win.
In lieu of a respectable performance from its opponent, Pitt did what it could to give Connecticut a chance. There were the plays that can be found in the box score: two interceptions from Sunseri, a fumbled kickoff return, a 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by the Huskies, and an inability to stop Connecticut on the Huskies' game-deciding fourth-and-1.
But there were more events that conspired against the Panthers' chances, plays like Pitt's botched fourth-down attempt in the second quarter. Sunseri's second interception was set up by terrible series of plays: first, Graham fumbled a handoff from Sunseri to cost Pitt four yards, and on the next play, Connecticut's Scott Lutrus beat a block from Henry Hynoski and hit Lewis after he caught a screen pass, causing a fumble that pushed the line of scrimmage back nine more yards.
There was also the first series of the fourth quarter, a drive that began with a miscommunication between Sunseri and Graham on first down and a six-yard sack on second down. And then there was Sunseri's performance overall; despite completing 71% of his passes, Pitt's redshirt sophomore quarterback was not particularly effective. In addition to his two interceptions, Sunseri missed open receivers several times, and his three sacks were the most Pitt has given up in a game since Miami recorded five.
"There were plays that happened during the game, things that might not show up as major plays in the game," Wannstedt said. "We didn't handle it well in any area."
In light of the multitude of errors and the close scoring separation, it's plausible to consider that the Panthers very well could have won the game if they had committed just one fewer mistake:
One less interception. One less sack. One less busted play.
"We played bad but we were still in the game; imagine if we had come out and played the way we're capable of playing," Graham said after the game. "It would have been a big difference. But they made plays and we didn't."