November 25, 2006

Panthers fall to UL in season finale

The Pitt football team closed out its 2006 regular season schedule on Saturday at Heinz Field when the Panthers took on #8 Louisville. Pitt entered the game with a 6-5 record, teetering on the brink of a bowl berth, and riding a four-game losing streak; all four of those situations got worse in the season finale, as the Panthers lost to the Cardinals 48-24.

In the Panthers' four-game losing streak, they have been plagued by two distinct flaws that by and large didn't arise through the team's 6-1 start to the season: an inability to make plays on defense, and a general malaise after halftime. Both of those issues were on display on Saturday, primarily in the second half.

Louisville struck first, scoring on their second drive of the game, but the Panthers answered with the kind of drive that they probably should have been attempting all season: a 13-play, 80-yard march that featured just two running plays. One of those rushes by LaRod Stephens-Howling went for 14 yards, while the other gained six yards and six points. In lieu of short/negative-gain run plays, the drive was built on methodical passes, with no throws going over 12 yards.

Then, Louisville running back Kolby Smith fumbled on the first play of the Cardinals' ensuing drive and Pitt safety Sam Bryant recovered, giving the Panthers the ball on the Louisville 21 yard line. The home team struck quickly, with receiver Derek Kinder taking an end-around hand-off from Tyler Palko before heaving the ball 21 yards to Oderick Turner, who was standing alone in the end zone. And just like that, with 6:12 remaining in the first quarter, the Panthers had a 14-7 lead.

Between the methodical offense on the long touchdown drive and the go-for-blood instinct on the first play after the turnover, it looked like Pitt had the Cardinals' number. But Louisville responded by scoring on each of their next three drives with two touchdowns and a field goal, while the Panthers could only muster a field goal over that span, giving the Cardinals a 24-17 lead that they would carry into halftime.

The Panthers got the ball to open the second half, though, and they only trailed by a touchdown. But six plays netted just 41 yards for Pitt and led to a punt. The punt stuck the Cardinals at their own two yard line but, not surprisingly, the prolific Louisville offense drove the length of the field and the Cardinals led 31-17.

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