Heading into halftime Saturday, Pitt led No. 18 Louisville by four points, and the Panthers looked on their way to upsetting another top-25 team at Heinz Field.
Fifteen minutes of game time later, they were down by 17 and staring an 0-3 Big East Conference start in the face. A late comeback attempt fell short, and Pitt lost to the Cardinals, 45-35.
Louisville outscored Pitt (2-4, 0-3), 21-0, in the third quarter, and cruised from there.
"Give Louisville a lot of credit," Pitt coach Paul Chryst said. "Certainly the way they came out in the second half, and we didn't answer their scores."
Louisville's barrage started right after halftime. On the first play of the third quarter, Cardinals quarterback Teddy Bridgewater found receiver DeVante Parker streaking down the left sideline for a 75-yard touchdown pass that gave them a lead they never relinquished.
Bridgewater finished 17 of 26 for 304 yards and the one touchdown.
"He made some plays," Chryst said. "I wasn't surprised by the things that he did, his escapability. It's more than just him, but that's also why they're a 6-0 club."
The Cardinals (6-0, 1-0) didn't let up. Senorise Perry capped off the next offensive series -- a five-play, 58 yard drive -- with a 2-yard scoring run.
After another three-and-out by Pitt, punter Matt Yoklic couldn't handle a low snap, and Louisville took over at the Pitt 16. Three plays later, Perry scored his third touchdown of the game to make it 38-21 and complete a miserable 15 minutes for Pitt.
"We've got to seize the opportunities to get momentum back our way," Chryst said. "I think you'd say that's probably where the game was won or lost, in that third quarter."
Up until halftime, it looked as if the Panthers were ready to play with the Big East's highest-ranked team. The offense was clicking, and Pitt had scoring chances on each of its first three drives. The results were two touchdowns and a missed 50-yard field goal.
The Panthers also got a boost from their special teams. After forcing a three-and-out on Louisville's second drive, Todd Thomas blocked a Cardinals punt. The ball squirted 30 yards downfield into the end zone, and Thomas sprinted to recover it for a touchdown.
"Once I got through, I just threw my hands up," Thomas said. "I don't think I had technique with it. I just threw my hands up, blocked it, ran down and recovered it."
Holding a 21-14 lead with 50 seconds to play in the first half and facing a fourth-and-1, Chryst elected to go for it instead of punting. Running back Rushel Shell was stuffed at the line, and the Cardinals used the field position to get a field goal before halftime.
Chryst faced another fourth-down choice late in the contest. Despite the disastrous third quarter, the Panthers fought back and trailed by 10 with just under 10 minutes left.
Onfourth-and-8 from the Louisville 22, Chryst again went for it instead of attempting the field goal.
Tino Sunseri's pass to Cam Saddler fell incomplete, ending any hope for a Pitt comeback.
"I thought we could get it," Chryst said.
"Don't get me wrong, you don't get it and you're like, 'Jeez, that wasn't real smart.' But I felt good and wanted to approach it that way."
Sunseri finished with another solid game statistically, completing 28 of 37 passes for 287 yards and two touchdowns.
Once again, his favorite target was Devin Street, who finished with 11 catches for 111 yards and a touchdown.
Sunseri said Louisville's game plan on defense was to take away deep passes and make the Panthers dink and dunk it all over the field.
"Whenever you're third down and 10, third down and 9, whenever you dump the ball off, you can pick up 6 or 7 yards, but you're still 2 or 3 yards short," Sunseri said. "I think that's what their plan was."
After the running game struggled mightily against Syracuse last week, it took a small step forward against the Cardinals. Freshman Shell -- limited by injury to one carry against the Orange -- shouldered the load with 18 carries for 96 yards and a touchdown. Ray Graham added six carries for 20 yards.
With an 0-3 Big East start, a league title likely is out of the question, but Pitt can take some inspiration from the previous Panthers team that started 0-3 in conference play.
In 2001, the Panthers bounced back and won their final six games including a Tangerine Bowl victory.
Next week, these Panthers will visit Buffalo.
"We've got to get ready for next week. Buffalo's not going to sit around and pout for us," Graham said.
"We've got to get ready for Buffalo. Put this game behind us. Not like we can replay this game. We've just got to get back and take care of Buffalo."
First Published October 14, 2012 4:00 AM