Pittsburgh shuts down lifeless Orange 30-7
PITTSBURGH (AP) As the close losses kept mounting, Pittsburgh coach Paul Chryst kept preaching.
Stay the course, Chryst told his frustrated team. Focus on the next game, not the whole season. Do the little things well enough and the big things take care of themselves.
Those two worldviews will collide next weekend after the Panthers kept their chances for a bowl game alive with a 30-7 win over Syracuse on Saturday. Pitt (5-6, 3-4) now needs to upset Miami in South Florida a couple days after Thanksgiving to assure the program of a seventh straight postseason trip.
''Right now, it's just like a playoff,'' linebacker Anthony Gonzalez said.
One played far away from the college football playoff committee but no less important to a program desperately searching for traction. For four dominant quarters Pitt found some against the lifeless Orange. Chad Voytik tossed a pair of touchdown passes, Chris James ran for a career-high 122 yards and the Panthers overwhelmed Syracuse (3-8, 1-6) even with ACC's leading rusher James Conner sitting out the second half with a hip injury.
Conner ran for 38 yards and his 22nd touchdown of the season to set an ACC record before exiting. His status for next weekend is uncertain, but the Panthers got by just fine with James and sophomore wide receiver Tyler Boyd leading the way. Boyd finished with seven receptions for 126 yards, 49 of them coming on a catch-and-run for a score early in the fourth quarter to seal it.
Pitt outgained Syracuse 445-255, held the ball for nearly 39 minutes and was never really threatened in an emotionally charged rebound from a deflating 40-35 loss at North Carolina last week, the Panthers' fourth defeat by five points or less this season.
Those missteps cost Pitt all the momentum it gained after a 3-0 start, but the even-keeled Chryst didn't panic. Neither did his players. The Panthers scored the first 17 points and were never really threatened.
''The last couple of weeks have not been easy,'' Chryst said. ''The players have remained strong and kept their focus.''
Syracuse (3-8, 1-6) turned it over three times and generated little momentum behind quarterbacks AJ Long and Mitch Kimble.
Long sat out a loss to Duke two weeks ago with nerve problems in his right shoulder but struggled with his accuracy in his return. The freshman completed 10 of 19 for 149 yards with a pick and added another 30 on the ground but the Orange never got going.
Kimble provided little energy during a brief appearance. He missed all six of his passes and threw an interception. Syracuse has lost eight of nine following a 2-0 start.
''We shot ourselves in the foot mentally,'' Long said. ''That's what stopped us today.''
The series between the longtime rivals - who have faced each other every year since 1955 and leapt from the Big East to the ACC last fall - often makes up for in late-game drama what it lacks in fireworks, with each of the last two meetings decided by a single point.
Not this time.
Pitt wore down the Orange behind a running game that cruised even with Conner limited to 11 carries, though he stuck around long enough to punch in a 1-yard touchdown in the first quarter, tying Heisman Trophy-winner Tony Dorsett's school mark for rushing TDs in a season and topping the ACC mark of 21 set by Virginia Tech's Ryan Williams in 2009.
Chris Blewitt overcame two early misses to drill a 46-yard field goal to make it 10-0 and the Panthers went up 17-0 late in the half when Voytik hit Dontez Ford for an 11-yard touchdown.
Syracuse's only extended drive came at the start of the second half, keyed by a 46-yard throw from Long to Steve Ishmael that set up Ron Johnson - a defensive lineman - for a 1-yard score that briefly pulled the Orange within 17-7.
It didn't stay that close for long. Blewitt hit a 31-yard field goal at the end of a 13-play drive to make it 20-7 and Boyd put the Orange away with a beautifully executed wide receiver screen. The sophomore took the short pass from Voytik, split two defenders then outran the other nine Syracuse players on the field as he topped 100 yards receiving for the fourth straight game and the fifth time this year.
The play allowed Pitt to keep its hopes of extending its season beyond Nov. 29 alive. It's not the ACC championship spot they envisioned in September, but it's something.
''Just because you don't reach your goals that doesn't mean you stop,'' senior safety Ray Vinopal said. ''We still want a bowl game.''