A crowd of 44,893 assembled at Heinz Field to watch Pitt play host to Connecticut, but the number of fans who actually remained after the Panthers took a sleepwalk through the first half and eventually fell behind the Huskies by 15 points late in the third quarter was about half of that total.
Those who left, however, probably are kicking themselves this morning because the Panthers woke up just in time to put together a furious, 18-point rally in the game's final 16 minutes to win in heartstopping fashion, 24-21.
Pitt (5-1, 2-0 in the Big East) trailed Connecticut (3-2, 0-1), 21-6, after Andre Dixon scored on a 2-yard run with 3:56 to play in the third quarter. The Panthers got the winning points when junior Dan Hutchins kicked an 18-yard field goal as time expired.
The 15-point deficit was the largest overcome by the Panthers under coach Dave Wannstedt.
"That [comeback] was outstanding," Wannstedt said. "I really like how we did it. The second half, we came out and re-established our identity from the standpoint that we played very physical as an offensive line and we started running the ball and defensively we stepped up.
"The disappointing thing is we have not played as good as we can for a whole game. But our players gave great effort. They stayed together as a team. It was a team win."
Often, one team's fourth-quarter comeback usually can be spun as the other team's fourth-quarter collapse, but that was not the case in this one as Pitt dominated most of the second half.
The Huskies' offense managed 98 yards and one touchdown in the second half, and 61 of those yards came on one drive. The Panthers, meanwhile, ran for 166 yards in the second half, enabling the passing game to get on track in a big way.
Pitt's one-two punch of freshman tailbacks -- Dion Lewis (24 carries, 158 yards) and Ray Graham (8 carries, 54 yards) -- had another outstanding day, and the Panthers also got a stellar performance from receiver Jonathan Baldwin, who caught eight passes for 104 yards and a touchdown.
Beyond the Panthers' stars, there were some unsung heros like freshman receiver Mike Shanahan, who had an important catch and run late in the game; freshman safety Jarred Holley, who had to play every snap because Elijah Fields (ankle) was unable to play, and Hutchins, who kicked three field goals and ended any questions about his kicking under pressure.
"Late in the game, it was a gut check for us," said Pitt tight end Nate Byham, who had three catches for 34 yards. "We had to look ourselves in the eye and say 'We have to be able to run the ball or the game is over.' We had to face adversity and we pushed on. We were tired and we were in pain, but we kept fighting and made plays."
Pitt middle linebacker Adam Gunn added, "the big picture is we have been a second-half team and, if we can play the way we did in the second half, things would be great."
Although the comeback was exciting, Pitt's dominance in the second half was not terribly different from what happened in the first -- except that Panthers cashed in on their scoring opportunities.
Pitt should have been ahead, 21-0, after their first three drives, but Lewis dropped a touchdown pass on the first drive, quarterback Bill Stull missed a wide-open Baldwin in the end zone on the second and overthrew Byham on the third.
So, Pitt led, 3-0, going into the second quarter and fell behind when Marcus Easley caught a 79-yard touchdown pass from Cody Endres. The deficit grew to 14-3 early in the third quarter when Connecticut's Robert Vaughn returned an interception 20 yards for a touchdown.
Stull threw touchdown passes to Baldwin (26 yards) and Dorin Dickerson (27 yards) and a two-point conversion pass to Cedric McGee to tie the game midway through the fourth quarter.
"Today was just one of those days where we all knew we had to battle," said Stull, who was 21 of 31 for 268 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. "As a quarterback, you have to have confidence and understand you're going to have ups and downs. We put some great drives together, and our defense stepped up.
"It was a great way to finish the game for us."
NOTES -- Pitt's Aaron Berry left in the third quarter after hurting his shoulder and did not return. "He says he will be fine, but we'll see [today]," Wannstedt said. Fields (ankle) did not dress for the game. ... Pitt had a season-high 489 yards of offense. ...Pitt's next game is Friday against Rutgers.
Paul Zeise can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1720 First Published October 11, 2009 4:00 AM