SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) — Kenny Pickett threw for 232 yards and two touchdowns, one of them coming on a trick play to put Pittsburgh ahead for good, and the Panthers held off Syracuse 27-20 on Friday night for their fourth straight win.
Pittsburgh (5-2, 2-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) had won its previous three, by a combined seven points, and two of those victories came in the final minute. This one was different until the end, with the Panthers gaining a 24-6 halftime lead and keeping the Orange at bay despite a tense final 2 minutes.
Clayton Welch hit Aaron Hackett for a 7-yard touchdown with 2:44 left to move the Orange within striking distance, and the Panthers averted a meltdown after Vincent Davis lost a fumble but was ruled down with under 2 minutes left deep in his own territory.
Syracuse (3-4, 0-3), which had lost only once in their previous nine games in the Carrier Dome, is the only team in the ACC’s Atlantic Division without a conference win
Pitt, which has won 15 of the past 18 games in the series, converted six of 10 third downs in the first half, the defense registered six sacks, and that trick play sent the Panthers on the way to victory. The Panthers entered the game ranked second in the nation in sacks with an average of 4.50 per game (27) and finished with nine, the most in a game since 2001.
Pickett hit a wide-open Aaron Mathews for a 43-yard score after a pair of laterals to give Pitt a 10-3 lead late in the first quarter. A.J. Davis, who finished with 103 rushing, scored on a 5-yard run with 4:53 left before halftime and Pickett hit Maurice Ffrench for a 14-yard score with 23 seconds left in the second quarter.
Pickett, who was ranked second in the nation with an average of 27.20 completions per game, finished 18 of 33 with zero turnovers.
Syracuse finally broke through early in the third after quarterback Tommy DeVito was hit hard and forced to leave the game in favor of Welch, a junior college transfer. Welch, who had broken two nice runs when inserted briefly in the first half, found Taj Harris down the left side on a third-and-9 play and Harris outraced the defense for a 94-yard score.
The teams traded field goals in the first quarter, Alex Kessman hitting from 47 yards for Pitt and Andre Szmyt from 28 yards for the Orange. Szmyt, the nation’s best kicker last season, missed a 49-yard field goal early in the fourth, his second miss of the season.
Pittsburgh stunned UCF 35-34 a month ago on the final play of the game with a play offensive coordinator Mark Whipple dubbed the “Pitt Special.” Davis took a direct snap from center, ran to his left and flipped the ball to Mathews, who was headed right. Matthews, a former high school quarterback, then elected not to run, pulled up as he rolled right and found Pickett in the end zone. The Panthers struck again with a similar play against the Orange, this time Pickett doing the throwing and Mathews the catching, though he did juggle it briefly.
Syracuse extended its streak of consecutive games with at least one takeaway to 21, second longest in the nation. Jawhar Jordan recovered Ffrench’s fumble on a booming punt by Syracuse’s Sterling Hofrichter in the first half. The streak dates to the 2017 season finale against Boston College. The Orange have 46 turnovers in that span, 21 of them fumble recoveries.
Syracuse coach Dino Babers subbed in Welch twice in the first half for DeVito. The 6-foot-5, 243-pound redshirt ripped off runs of 23 and 18 yards. Then, after a poorly thrown ball on his first pass of the game, he sparked the Orange with the long scoring pass after DeVito departed following a tough hit while running.
Pittsburgh: The Panthers have a swarming defense and an efficient offense with some gifted receivers like Ffrench (6 catches for 92 yards) and a solid quarterback in Pickett. That should make Pitt a threat going forward as they try to repeat as Coastal Division champions.
Syracuse: The Orange had trouble scoring in their previous game, a 16-10 loss at North Carolina State, and that continued against Pitt, which outgained Syracuse 305-133 in the first half. The uptempo attack that’s Babers’ calling card is misfiring way too often and needs a quick fix before the season slips away. Welch finished 8 of 20 for 176 yards and two touchdowns. DeVito was 11 of 23 for 101 yards passing and was sacked six times, bringing his season total to 32. Take away the long pass play and Syracuse managed 234 yards on 77 plays.
Pittsburgh hosts Miami in a homecoming game on Oct. 26.
Syracuse plays at Florida State on Oct. 26.