PITTSBURGH — Antwuan Reed returned a fumble 20 yards for a touchdown with less than 3 minutes remaining to lift Pittsburgh to a 33-20 win over Syracuse on Saturday.
The Panthers (6-6, 4-3 Big East) became bowl eligible for the fourth straight year with the victory. Tino Sunseri threw for 259 yards and a score and Kevin Harper drilled four field goals while the Pitt defense forced the reeling Orange (5-7, 1-6) into six turnovers.
Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib threw his 22nd touchdown pass of the season to tie a school record but also tossed two interceptions and fumbled twice as the Orange dropped their fifth straight.
The game may have been the final Big East contest for both schools, who announced in September they’re heading to the ACC by 2014.
Pitt now has a chance to get there with some momentum. Coach Todd Graham has endured a roller coaster first season that started with the Panthers getting picked to finish second in the Big East behind West Virginia.
Graham embraced the expectations, yet the Panthers spent most of the season struggling to get a grasp on their new coach’s “high octane” offense.
Pitt dropped four games — to the Mountaineers, Cincinnati, Notre Dame and Iowa — by a combined 11 points, many of them punctuated by second-half collapses. Graham took much of the blame for his team’s inability to close out opponents, yet the Panthers appeared to finally learn their lesson in the season finale.
The Orange trailed the entire game but pulled within 26-20 on Ross Krautman’s 23-yard field goal with 4:40 to go. Syracuse forced a Pitt punt and took over at its own 6 with 3:03 remaining. Nassib hit Alec Lemon for a 12-yard gain to start the drive, but Pitt’s defense delivered when senior linebacker Brandon Lindsey hit Nassib as he scrambled to his left. The ball floated into the air and Reed hauled it in before sprinting to the end zone.
Pitt’s Andrew Taglianetti picked off Nassib on the next Syracuse snap and the Panthers ran out the clock. The six turnovers by the Orange were the most produced by a Pitt defense since 2002.
Syracuse’s miscues started on the opening kickoff. Harper’s pooch kick was mishandled by Dorian Graham and the Panthers recovered at the Syracuse 22. Sunseri needed just one play to put Pitt on the board, hitting wide-open freshman tailback Isaac Bennett in the flat for a touchdown.
Less than 3 minutes later the lead was 10-0 after Lindsey intercepted Nassib at the Syracuse 46.
The Orange drew within 10-7 when Nassib found running back Antwon Bailey for a 26-yard touchdown pass, moving Nassib into a tie with former Syracuse stars Donovan McNabb and Don McPherson for the most scoring tosses in a season.
Each time Syracuse threatened to get back in it, the Panthers answered as the much-maligned Sunseri managed to avoid the kind of flubs that have put a damper on a once-promising season.
Sunseri completed 25 of 34 passes with a touchdown and an interception. He was sacked four times yet didn’t get rattled late, something that happened with regularity during a second-half meltdown last week against the Mountaineers.
Bennett rushed for 51 yards while also catching seven passes for 61 yards in his first career start in place of senior Zach Brown, who missed the game with a bruised sternum.
The Orange were rolling six weeks ago after a 49-23 upset over the Mountaineers. Five straight losses ended the season, preventing them from going to a bowl game for the second straight year.
Syracuse outgained the Panthers 345-333 but couldn’t get enough stops to climb out of the early hole. Nassib completed 23 of 32 passes for 225 yards while Bailey ran for 53 yards to become the 10th back in school history to top 1,000 yards in a season.
He won’t get a chance to add to his total, however, as the Orange will head into winter workouts and a murky future.