BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- They played for an interim head coach. They lost two assistant coaches to other jobs and three defensive starters to injuries. They had a head coach for 16 days, then they didn't. They traveled into the heart of SEC country and played in front of a majority of fans wearing the wrong shade of blue.
The Pitt players took all that in stride. What they would not take in stride -- a shot at their quarterback -- led them to victory.
A fight that started after a Kentucky player hit Tino Sunseri late gave Pitt the momentum to score 17 unanswered points on its way to a 27-10 victory Saturday against the Wildcats in the BBVA Compass Bowl at Legion Field.
"It's mental, but momentum is a big help," said offensive left tackle Jason Pinkston, the one who shoved the Kentucky player to the ground when he hit Sunseri late. "It worked in our favor this game."
Pitt finished the season 8-5 and improved to 12-15 alltime in bowl games by using a ground game that averaged 5.7 yards per carry, a blocked punt and good defense.
This game represented a cleansing ritual for a team that channeled its frustration over the past month. Pitt fired coach Dave Wannstedt after the Panthers tied for the Big East Conference championship but missed the BCS bowl berth due to tiebreakers. It hired Miami [Ohio's] Michael Haywood, but fired him when he was arrested and charged with domestic battery. Offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti and defensive backs coach Jeff Hafley took jobs at Rutgers.
"[The players] thought they were the problem of why our coach was released," interim head coach Phil Bennett said. "And they went out and wanted to play well."
The half-empty stadium held mostly Kentucky fans, some of whom, Bennett said, blocked the Pitt team bus when it arrived at the stadium Saturday morning.
"I used that," Bennett said. "I said that's the kind of stuff we're fighting today."
Bennett said the Panthers were going to run, and they succeeded. They ran for 261 yards, 105 from Dion Lewis and 90 from Ray Graham. Sunseri added 53 after gaining 55 in the regular season.
"They looked like an SEC football team the way they run the ball," Kentucky defensive tackle Ricky Lumpkin said. "They reminded us of Auburn or Mississippi State. We were sitting out there on defense calling when they were going to run the ball, yet we couldn't stop it."
The Panthers limited Kentucky (6-7) receiver Randall Cobb to 85 total yards and kept him out of the end zone.
"We didn't get the ball to him enough," Kentucky coach Joker Phillips said.
Sunseri completed 9 of 19 passes for 96 yards and threw a touchdown pass and an interception. Pitt's defense held the Wildcats to 104 yards rushing, but backup quarterback Morgan Newton, starting in place of suspended Mike Hartline, threw for 211 yards, completing 21 of 36.
One play after a Kentucky player hit Sunseri late out of bounds in the second quarter with the score tied, 3-3, a Kentucky lineman brought Sunseri to the ground during a dead-ball situation. Pinkston leveled him, starting a 22-man fight on the midfield logo. The fight gave Pitt momentum.
Pitt kicked a field goal, and, on the next drive, Andrew Taglianetti blocked a punt and Kolby Gray recovered at the 10. Sunseri scored on a quarterback sneak three plays later, and Pitt led, 13-3, with 34 seconds left in the half.
The momentum continued in the second half, when Pitt disrupted a fake punt on Kentucky's first possession. In three consecutive possessions, Pitt held Kentucky to a turnover on downs after stopping a fourth-and-1 quarterback sneak, a blocked punt and a failed fake punt.
After the fake punt, Sunseri threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to Brock DeCicco that gave Pitt a 20-3 lead with 10:47 left in the third quarter.
Kentucky rallied with a 14-play, 74-yard touchdown drive late in the third quarter. Matt Roark dropped a sure touchdown pass he might have lost in the sun, but Cobb's 18-yard reverse set up Moncell Allen's 1-yard touchdown run to make the score 20-10.
Pitt matched that long drive with one of its own, a 12-play, 69-yarder that ended with Lewis' 2-yard touchdown run, and the Panthers led, 27-10. Ten of those 12 plays were runs that accounted for 55 yards.
Bill Brink: email@example.com or 412-263-1158.