Four minutes into the second half of Pitt's game against Cincinnati at Heinz Field Saturday night, the Panthers had everything working.
Long field goals in the first half and a quick touchdown to start the third quarter had given the Panthers a 10-point lead with less than half the game remaining. And Pitt's defense even forced a turnover, which it hadn't done since the Rutgers game in early October.
But in a scenario that has become all too familiar for Pitt fans, things fell apart, as the Panthers became their own worst enemies en route to a 26-23 loss to the Bearcats.
After taking a 23-13 lead on the first drive of the second half and forcing a three-and-out on Cincinnati's first drive, Pitt became its own worst enemy. An illegal block by Mike Shanahan turned first-and-10 into first-and-20, which eventually led to a punt and a Cincinnati field goal. But the real blow came on the Panthers' next drive.
On third-and-2 from the Pitt 26, Tino Sunseri ran with the ball but was hit trying to extend the play and fumbled. Cincinnati took over at the 27 and scored a touchdown in three plays to tie the game at 23-23.
"I have to know where the sticks are; I was trying to make too much out of a two-yard gain," Sunseri said after the game. "I just tried to do too much on that play, and that's when the momentum and the tide really started to turn on us."
After Pitt got the ball back, the turning momentum pointed directly in favor of the Bearcats, as a Sunseri pass to Devin Street was deflected at the line of scrimmage and intercepted. That turnover led to a Cincinnati field goal, setting what would be the final score at 26-23.
Pitt had a chance to get back on top on its next drive when an 18-yard pass from Ronald Jones to Mike Shanahan would have given the Panthers the ball at the Cincinnati 21. But the play was called back when offensive lineman Juantez Hollins was ineligibly downfield.
"The difference was, we came into halftime and we had zero penalties and we had zero turnovers," Pitt coach Todd Graham said after the game. "And we said if we go out the next 30 minutes and do that, we're going to win the football game. And we went out and turned it over and had a crucial penalty that really hurt us on a big play."
The second-half collapse ruined what was becoming a good-enough performance by Pitt's offense as it played without junior tailback Ray Graham. In the first half, Sunseri completed 10-of-14 passes for 124 yards and rushed for a touchdown. And the offense opened the second half on a strong note with a five-play, 60-yard drive that saw Zach Brown rush twice for 36 yards and Sunseri complete three passes for 24 yards and a touchdown.
All told, Pitt gained 397 yards of total offense, including 179 on the ground. But the turnovers and penalties in the second half doomed the team's hopes.
"Ultimately, the quarterback on any team needs to be able to step up," Sunseri said. "When he sees the momentum start to shift, he needs to settle his guys down. He needs to look those guys in the eyes and tell them that we're going to keep on moving forward, we're going to keep trying to get first downs, and he has to put that on his shoulders to execute and make everybody else right.
"I wasn't able to do that tonight, and we came up three points short."
With the loss, Pitt falls to 4-5 overall and 2-2 in the Big East.