Pitt Clinches Bowl Eligibility
By: Ryan Bertonaschi
For the past 17 years, the Pitt Panthers have repeated a cycle of “get blown out,” “blow a lead” or “just plain lose” when Miami popped up on their schedule, and they hadn’t escaped Miami-Dade County with a win since 1963.
Saturday evening, however, a crippled Pitt team beat the Hurricanes handedly in Sun Life Stadium, closing a chapter in Pitt’s history book for Panther fans to forget.
With their star running back James Conner battling an ongoing hip injury and several members of Pitt’s defensive line also hampered with injury, the Panthers (6-6, 4-4 ACC) relied on Chad Voytik, Tyler Boyd and many reserves to pull off a 35-23 win over Miami (6-6, 3-5 ACC).
Conner played sparingly, holding his side and limping off the field at times.
Pitt took an early lead from kickoff on a 60-yard drive on four plays that was nonetheless capped off by Conner’s 23rd rushing touchdown on the year. The 13-yard touchdown run gave Conner Pitt’s individual record for touchdowns in a season, which was previously held by Tony Dorsett, who ran for 22 in 1976.
Conner scored another and Tyler Boyd reeled in a 12-yard pass from Chad Voytik to give the Panthers a 21-13 lead heading into the locker rooms.
The momentum was not immediately picked up by the Panthers, however, when they returned to the field.
On their first possession, the Hurricanes had advanced into Pitt’s territory with the help of a personal foul credited to Pitt defensive lineman Khaynin Mosley-Smith, and, as the drive continued, defensive end Shakir Soto got into a scuffle with a Miami offensive lineman following a play at the 29-yard line.
Soto was flagged for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after unnecessary pushing and shoving. He was greeted towards Pitt’s sideline by fifth-year linebacker Todd Thomas, who yelled and shoved Soto, and Soto only yelled and shoved back, causing an ugly scene.
Soto walked to the sideline after the incident, where he met an unhappy Pitt head coach Paul Chryst. Miami scored two plays later to creep within one point, 21-20.
With Conner limited to periodical carries, freshman Chris James and senior Isaac Bennett shared the bulk of Pitt’s carries in the second half.
James scored on a 15-yard touchdown run several plays later, and Pitt found itself in the end zone a couple possessions later after a 28-yard reception from Chad Voytik to Tyler Boyd set up a Voytik touchdown run, which put the Panthers up 35-23 for the kill.
Pitt’s win featured the Panthers best defensive effort in many weeks.
Thomas sat Soto down on the bench during an offensive possession in the third quarter and issued a pep talk to the sophomore from Wilkes-Barre, P.a.
Soto returned to the game shortly afterwards, and, backboned by strong applied pressure from Pitt’s defensive line, its defense forced Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya to throw passes over, behind and shy of his targeted receivers on 23 of his 45 attempts.
Voytik finished 8 of 12 with 134 yards. Boyd caught five passes for 72 yards, and he propelled Voytik and company to good field position by returning six kickoffs for 190 yards.
Pitt’s .500 finish means that the squad is bowl-eligible for the third consecutive year in Chryst’s tenure. The Panthers’ landing spot for a bowl game remains undecided for now, but a destination will surface in the coming weeks.