Too many penalties, a costly turnover and an uncharacteristically porous offensive line all kept the Panthers (2-3, 0-2 Big East) from completing a comeback in a 14-13 loss to Syracuse (2-3, 1-0) on Friday night.
Down by two touchdowns at the end of the first quarter, the Pitt defense held Syracuse scoreless the rest of game. A 1-yard touchdown run by Ray Graham and two field goals by Kevin Harper pulled Pitt to within a point by the middle of the third.
"I love the way they played," Pitt head coach Paul Chryst said. "And yet you look back at that and there are moments when you can win that game."
Sunseri had the offense marching up the field midway through the fourth quarter and moved into the red zone after three consecutive completions for 54 yards. The Panthers then allowed two sacks for a loss of a combined 24 yards.
That forced a punt with just under 5 minutes remaining, ultimately killed the comeback attempt, and sealed the win for Syracuse, which ran out the clock.
"When we get down inside their 30, you need to be able to come away with some points," Sunseri said. "I know that. And whenever you get down inside their 15, 10 yard line you've got to get touchdowns. They were able to stop us."
The Syracuse defense, on the field for more than 34 minutes, sacked Sunseri five times for 51 yards in losses, harassed him when he did throw, and shut down the Pittsburgh running game.
"We just don't play defense and call it a day," Syracuse defensive tackle Jay Bromley said. "We did our job and the offense did theirs."
Linebacker Dyshawn Davis returned a fumble 52 yards for the Orange's other score as Syracuse broke out of a yearlong funk. Syracuse hadn't beaten a Football Bowl Subdivision team since last October, losing eight straight since a stunning win over a ranked West Virginia team.
Syracuse also snapped a seven-game losing streak against Pittsburgh, which had won two straight.
Both teams were coming off bye weeks, and this was their last meeting as members of the Big East. Both will join the Atlantic Coast Conference next season, and they will continue to play one another each year.
Adonis Ameen-Moore, a sophomore with only 12 career carries entering the game, scored on a 1-yard run to cap Syracuse's first possession and had 13 yards on four consecutive carries to end it as the Orange held the ball for the final 4:52.
"We had to be ready, tuned in to everything," Ameen-Moore said. "I haven't scored a touchdown since I was in 12th grade. They trusted me to get the job done. It felt wonderful."
Syracuse finally put together a solid game after four erratic efforts.
"The first half, the fumble returned for a touchdown, we did enough stuff to beat ourselves in many ways," Chryst said. "I thought going in Syracuse was a good team and I come away believing the same thing."
The Orange scored first and never trailed, played well on special teams, converted that turnover into a touchdown, and pressured Sunseri when the game was on the line. Defensive end Brandon Sharpe broke through for three sacks, and when Sunseri seemed poised to give Pitt the lead late in the fourth quarter, the defense rose again against Pitt's imposing offensive line, which averages 317 pounds.
Sunseri was called for intentional grounding as he was sacked and on the next play cornerback Brandon Reddish stormed in from the left side on a blitz and sacked Sunseri again for a 9-yard loss that forced a punt. That all came after Sunseri had hit Devin Street for 15 yards, J.P. Holtz for another 15, and Mike Shanahan for 24 on consecutive plays to put the ball at the Syracuse 17.
"It felt great," Orange defensive tackle Deon Goggins said. "It finally felt like we was clicking. During the bye week we were working on little things and it came together."
Sunseri finished 25 of 33 for 319 yards to move past John Congemi and Rod Rutherford to fourth-all time at Pitt with 6,765 yards. Street had a career-high 10 catches for 130 yards.
After starting the season in dismal fashion, losing by two touchdowns to Youngstown State, an FCS team, and Big East foe Cincinnati, Pitt had rallied nicely behind Chryst. The Panthers stunned then-No. 13 Virginia Tech 35-17, forcing the Hokies into four first-half turnovers, and two weeks ago evened the score against FCS teams with a 55-10 victory over Gardner-Webb.
The Panthers fell behind Syracuse by two touchdowns in the first quarter, managed to force only one turnover after getting seven the previous two games, and Sanserif couldn't rally them again.
"We've got to be able to figure out the protection," Sanserif said. "We have to know that. It's something you have to be able to recognize. Ultimately, it's my job to right the ship on that and I'll be able to next time."
Syracuse's ho-huddle offense had produced lots of yardage in the first four games, but much of it had come in spurts after the Orange had fallen behind. Quarterback Ryan Nassib was flawless the first time Syracuse had the ball against Pitt.
After forcing the Panthers into a three-and-out on the game's first possession, Syracuse marched quickly for the first touchdown of the game, mixing the run with the pass as the Pitt defenders seemed to struggle to get a handle on the pace of play.
Nassib had four completions for 51 yards, while Smith and Gulley combined to rush for 18 yards to set up Moore's touchdown at 9:54. Moore's first career TD came on his first carry of the season.
Through four games, the Syracuse defense had produced only four turnovers (three interceptions and one fumble recovery) as the Orange struggled with one of the worst turnover margins in the country (minus-1.5).
Syracuse made it 14-0 late in the first on Davis' fumble return. Sanserif hit Drew Carswell for a short gain near midfield. Carswell lost the ball after a hit by Jeremi Wilkes, and Davis scooped it up and scored untouched down the right side.
Coming into the Syracuse game, Sanserif ranked as the Big East's most efficient passer (15th nationally) with a 166.80 rating, and he combined with Street to rally the Panthers.
Sanserif was 16 of 21 for 187 yards in the first half, and eight of those passes went to Street for 107 yards. Street's 14-yard catch over the middle on a third-and-7 from the Syracuse 20 set up Graham's 1-yard scoring run, which came on third down after some spirited play by the Orange front.
Kevin Harper's 40-yard field goal pulled Pitt within 14-10 at halftime and he hit a 27-yarder late in the third to make it 14-13. Sanserif set up the second with a gutsy throw as he was being hit, somehow finding Shanahan for a 46-yard gain down the left side.