And perfect no more.
The Pitt Panthers derailed the University of Miami’s first attempt at a perfect regular season since 2002 with a 24-14 victory Friday in front of 35,978 at Heinz Field.
The No. 2 Hurricanes (10-1, 7-1 ACC) ended their nation-leading win streak at 15 games, but more importantly might have ended a chance to make it into the four-team College Football Playoff.
No one saw this coming — except for possibly Pittsburgh, a team that came into the game at the bottom nationally in several statistical categories and with a losing record. This was the Panthers’ final game of the season, their unofficial bowl game, so to speak, as they finished 5-7 overall and 3-5 in the Atlantic Coast Conference in defeating a top-two team at home for the first time in its 128-year history.
The Canes will plummet in the CFP rankings, although a UM victory Saturday, Dec. 2, against No. 3 Clemson (10-1, 7-1) in the ACC Championship Game in Charlotte, North Carolina, could possibly vault UM back into the top four. The CFP selection committee strongly takes into account conference titles, and last year, when Clemson lost its only game to none other than Pittsburgh, the Tigers still went on to win the national title.
That won’t make it any easier mentally and emotionally for the Hurricanes.
“Terrible,” Braxton Berrios said when asked what it felt like to lose after 15 consecutive victories. “Everything was out in front of us and everything was in our own control. We gave that up. It’s a terrible way to end the regular season.”
“We haven’t lost in a while,” UM coach Mark Richt said after crediting Pitt for a “super” job. “We just went 15 games in a row without a loss and had to go in the locker room and do something besides cheer, jump up and down and celebrate. It’s a little bit different. It’s been over a year since we’ve had to do that. I know the guys are hurt. I’m hurt.
“The good news is we’re about to play for the ACC Championship. We have to get rested, get a good plan and get ready to play that one.”
The post-game locker room, the coach said, was quiet. “They listened intently,” Richt said. “I think they understand how to act. I told them I was proud of them. We’ve never had any kind of effort issue, that’s No. 1 … But yeah, it was tough in there. It was tough. It should be.”
UM went into the final quarter down 17-7, only the second time all season that the Canes had a deficit going into the fourth quarter (they trailed Georgia Tech 24-16), but this time a Hurricanes team known for its fourth-quarter heroics came up empty.
Quarterback Malik Rosier and the passing game was off-kilter all game — so off-kilter that Richt replaced Rosier with backup Evan Shirreffs with 9:58 left. That was a disaster.
Rosier (15 of 34 for 187 yards and two touchdowns) returned after Pitt’s final score late in the fourth quarter, and he threw a 39-yard touchdown pass to Berrios to culminate a two-play, 66-yard drive to make it 24-14 with 2:16 left.
The subsequent UM onside kick was fumbled by Pitt and recovered by Malek Young, and the Canes started the drive on their 34-yard line at 2:13. But it was too late, as Pitt sacked Rosier for the fourth time and the quarterback fumbled the ball into the arms of Pittsburgh’s Dewayne Hendrix.
“The mentality is to not let it happen again,” linebacker Shaquille Quarterman said of the loss. “We can’t sulk in the moment. We have to move on. We still have something to play for that is very important for us.”
UM, which finished with a sickly 45 rushing yards, couldn’t find holes for its runners nearly the entire game.
Meanwhile, Pitt true freshman quarterback Kenny Pickett made his first career start in only his fourth game. He finished 18 of 29 for 193 yards and a touchdown and ran for 60 yards and two more touchdowns.
Miami scored its lone touchdown in the first half on a 23-yard pass from Rosier to Ahmmon Richards with 7:03 left in the second quarter for a 7-3 UM lead. Richards’ left foot just toed the inside of the sideline as he leaped with the ball extended against the pylon. The play culminated an 80-yard drive that took 3 minutes, 51 seconds off the clock.
But the Canes’ lead wouldn’t even last the quarter.
The Hurricanes forced two turnovers in the second quarter, but each time they came up empty on their ensuing drive.
The first turnover came on the first play of the second quarter on a Michael Pinckney fumble recovery that put the Canes on their own 49-yard line. The second turnover came at 6:44 in the second quarter, when safety Sheldrick Redwine pummeled Chris Clark after Clark’s 11-yard reception. The ball popped out of Clark’s hands and safety Jaquan Johnson recovered at the UM 48. On third and 3 from the Pitt 45, Rosier missed a wide-open Braxton Berrios on an errant pass that was thrown behind Berrios.
Said Rosier of his first loss as a starter: “I felt like I let my team down.”
What the quarterback took away from the loss: “Don’t miss opportunities that can change a ball game.”