EAST HARTFORD, Conn. -- One week after blowing a 14-point fourth-quarter lead to Notre Dame, Pitt tried to pull off a multi-touchdown fourth-quarter comeback of its own Friday night against Connecticut.
The Panthers, though came up just short. They fell to the Huskies, 24-17, in a Big East Conference game at Rentschler Field, continuing their roller-coaster season. After going behind, 24-0, in the first half, the Panthers scored 17 unanswered points in the second half but couldn't level the score.
"You can't play one half well and expect to win the game," running back Ray Graham said.
The loss might have devastating implications for Pitt's postseason hopes. The Panthers (4-6, 1-4) must win their remaining two games -- at Heinz Field against Rutgers and at South Florida -- if they want to extend their season beyond Dec. 1.
Pitt came out flat and never recovered, seemingly feeling the hangover from a devastating triple-overtime loss a week ago to the Irish.
Connecticut jumped to a surprising 24-0 first-half lead behind solid play from all three facets of its team. The Huskies offense, which ranked 117th in Division I-A coming into the game in scoring offense, seemingly moved the ball at will against Pitt.
Quarterback Chandler Whitmer and running back Lyle McCombs provided a balanced attack that led the Huskies to points on three of their five first-half drives.
"I just think we came out sluggish in the first half," Graham said. "We came out flat."
The Huskies got the ball to open the game, and Whitmer went 3-for-3 passing on the opening drive, with all three passes going to tight end Ryan Griffin. McCombs added six runs for 25 yards on the drive, and Connecticut marched down the field for a game-opening touchdown and a 7-0 lead.
Whitmer never broke open the game, but was ruthlessly efficient, completing 18 of 24 passes for 196 yards and a touchdown. Griffin had six catches for 84 yards and a score, all in the first half and most on play-action fakes.
"I think [we had problems with] our eye discipline," Pitt coach Paul Chryst said. "Which is a problem on the play-action pass."
After forcing a three-and-out from Pitt, the Huskies were back on the move. They marched the ball to the Pitt 12, where Chad Christen converted a 29-yard field goal attempt to make it 10-0.
Pitt's offense converted two first downs early in the second quarter, but the drive sputtered and Kevin Harper missed a 44-yard field goal that bounced off the right upright.
Connecticut's second touchdown came courtesy of a familiar foe for Pitt. Midway through the second quarter, the Huskies forced Pitt to punt from the 40. Huskies returner Nick Williams took the punt 80 yards for a touchdown to put the Huskies up, 17-0.
In 2010, Williams returned a kickoff 95 yards against the Panthers to swing the momentum in Connecticut's favor and eventually propel the Huskies to a win.
While Pitt's offense continued to sputter, with just two first downs the rest of the way, Connecticut added another touchdown on a 2-yard run from McCombs with just over a minute to go in the half.
McCombs had 29 carries in game for 120 yards and the one touchdown.
The Panthers finally got some offensive momentum going on their first drive of the second half. On third-and-17, quarterback Tino Sunseri found receiver Mike Shanahan wide open behind the coverage for a 39-yard gain.
Pitt's next three plays went for no gain, though, and the Panthers settled for a 42-yard field goal from Harper. It got them on the board, though, trailing, 24-3, early in the third quarter.
The Panthers added a touchdown early in the fourth quarter when Sunseri hit Devin Street for a couple of long passes and finished off the drive with an 11-yard scoring pass to Drew Carswell.
Sunseri finished 19 of 34 for 302 yards and one touchdown. He was sacked three times, and never looked comfortable in the pocket.
With Sunseri struggling, the ground game never got moving either. Pitt ran for just 48 yards as a team, averaging 1.9 yards per carry, and Graham led the way with 41 yards on 15 carries.
"They're a good defense," Chryst said. "We had a lot of respect for them coming into the game."
While Pitt desperately tried to play catch-up in the second half, the Huskies were content to run the ball, salt away the clock and hold on for dear life.
This is the second consecutive trip to Rentschler Field that could hinder Pitt's postseason aspirations. Two years ago, the Panthers had a two-game lead in the Big East and was the favorite to represent the conference in Bowl Championship Series game. After the loss to the Huskies, they ended up in the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham, Ala.
Now, Pitt's goal is simple: Win out or the season ends in three weeks.
Sam Werner: email@example.com or on Twitter: @SWernerPG. First Published November 10, 2012 5:15 AM