By DAN GELSTON
STATE COLLEGE —
By JOHN KEKIS
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
SYRACUSE, N.Y. – Isaac Bennett scored the decisive touchdown on a 5-yard run on the final play of the third quarter, Tom Savage passed for 218 yards and another score, and Pittsburgh rallied past Syracuse 17-16 on Saturday in a critical game for both teams.
Both needed a victory to become eligible for the postseason, and Pitt (6-5, 3-4 ACC) got the job done. Syracuse (5-6, 3-4) has one more chance next week at home against Boston College.
Trailing with time winding down in the third, Savage directed a nine-play, 88-yard drive to give the Panthers the winning score. After taking a hard hit from blitzing linebacker Marquis Spruill, Savage hit tight end J.P. Holtz for 16 yards on third down, and the ball was moved another 15 yards to the Syracuse 43 after an unsportsmanlike conduct was whistled against the Orange.
Savage hit Holtz again for 11 yards on the right side, and Manasseh Garner caught two more passes for 27 yards to set up Bennett’s run.
The Orange squandered a chance to regain the lead after Luke Arciniega intercepted Savage’s deflected pass at midfield early in the fourth. Despite help from a personal foul against Pitt, the Syracuse drive stalled and Ryan Norton missed right on a 41-yard field goal attempt.
In a game decided by the thinnest of margins, the difference was a blocked extra point by Pitt star Aaron Donald, who had 3.5 tackles for a loss.
Syracuse had one last chance at victory in the final minute, but when the Orange lined up for a 53-yard field goal attempt on a fourth-and-8 play, Pitt called a timeout just as the ball was snapped on what was going to be a fake. Terrel Hunt’s pass fell incomplete when play resumed and the Panthers escaped.
Savage, who had suffered 37 sacks coming in, was sacked three more times but finished 28 of 41 and a pretty touchdown to Garner. Tyler Boyd had 10 catches for 82 yards.
Syracuse had gained a 16-10 lead with 6:25 left in the third when Hunt combined with Alvin Cornelius III for a 42-yard score on a third-and-15 play, and it was spectacular. Hunt, who misfired on five long passes in his previous Carrier Dome start three weeks ago, laid out a long pass down the right sideline and Cornelius, a redshirt freshman, made a fingertip grab as he tumbled into the end zone for his first career score.
Hunt finished 18 of 28 for 159 yards and Jerome Smith gained 88 yards rushing for the Orange.
Syracuse’s run game is its strength – it entered the game averaging just under 200 yards rushing to rank 37th nationally – and the Orange scored the game’s first touchdown on a 67-yard drive that took just four plays – all on the ground.
George Morris II romped 22 yards over left tackle on Syracuse’s second play from scrimmage and two plays later Smith raced 36 yards untouched through the Pitt line for a touchdown. Donald blocked the extra-point try by Norton and the Orange led 6-0 at 12:07 of the first.
The Panthers broke through early in the second on Chris Blewitt’s 43-yard field goal after a 19-play drive that took 9:13. Syracuse nearly stopped it when Pitt wideout Kevin Weatherspoon fumbled inside the Orange 25, but linebacker Cameron Lynch failed to cover the ball and it squirted out of bounds at the 22. Lynch made up for the botch by sacking Savage twice after the Panthers had driven inside the 5, the second coming on third down and forcing the kick.
The Syracuse defense spent a lot of time in the field in the opening half. Pitt had the ball for more than 19 minutes and finally gained its first lead late in the second as the Panthers converted three critical third downs against the sixth-best third-down defense in the country.
Savage completed a 15-yard pass to Boyd in traffic over the middle on a third-and-5 play from his own 35 and James Conner rushed for 14 on third-and-1 to keep the drive going. Facing third-and-2 from the Orange 7, Savage hit Garner on the right side, and he dived for the pylon to put Pitt up 10-6 with 3:06 left in the second quarter.
Syracuse took advantage of a turnover in the final minute of the period to pull within 10-9 at halftime. Weatherspoon fumbled a punt and Ritchy Desir recovered for the Orange at the Pitt 24. Syracuse had to settle for Norton’s 41-yard field goal after Hunt’s pass for Durell Eskridge in the left corner of the end zone was ruled out of bounds.