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NCAA FOOTBALL: PITT 17, SYRACUSE 16 -- Panthers win, earn bowl eligibility

by JOHN KEKIS AP Sports Writer on November 24, 2013 1:39 AM

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Aaron Donald wreaks havoc every week for the Pittsburgh defense, inflicting much of his punishment behind the line of scrimmage.

One of six semifinalists for the Outland Trophy — and the only defensive player on the list — Donald had another standout game against Syracuse on Saturday with 3οΎ½ tackles for a loss. It was his big hands, though, that spelled the difference in the Panthers’ critical 17-16 win. He blocked his first kick of the season after the Orange had scored on their first possession, and that spelled the difference at the final gun in a hard-fought game with a lot on the line.

“We’ve been watching film all week,” Donald said. “We pushed them back. I just got my hand on it. We did this as a team. A lot of guys made plays, not just me.”

Both teams needed a victory to become eligible for the postseason, and Pitt (6-5, 3-4 ACC) got the job done with a gritty performance.

“Obviously, this is a good win,” Pitt coach Paul Chryst said. “Guys fought. They fought all the way to the end, and that you truly appreciate.”

Syracuse (5-6, 3-4) has one more chance next week at home against Boston College to get that elusive sixth win. The ACC has agreements to send at least eight — and as many as 10 — of its members to bowl games if they qualify, and 10 already have.

“Frustrating? Hell, yeah,” first-year Syracuse coach Scott Shafer said. “I want to put my hand through a wall right now. But that’s the way life goes. We have to foster that frustration and turn it into motivation and go find a way to get this victory against Boston College. We’re not going to use excuses. We’ve got to fight.”

The Panthers won it on Isaac Bennett’s 5-yard run on the last play of the third quarter.

Trailing with time winding down in the period, Tom Savage directed a nine-play, 88-yard scoring drive. After taking a hard hit from blitzing linebacker Marquis Spruill, Savage, who used quick drops and short passes all game to thwart the Syracuse defense, hit tight end J.P. Holtz for 16 yards on third down.

After the ball was moved another 15 yards to the Syracuse 43 after an unsportsmanlike conduct was whistled against the Orange, Savage hit Holtz again for 11 yards on the right side, and Manasseh Garner caught two more passes for 27 yards to set up Bennett’s run. Pitt converted an impressive 9 of 17 third-down plays against what had been the sixth-best third-down defense in the nation.

“Just get the ball out,” said Savage, who was 28 of 41 for 218 yards and a touchdown to Garner late in the second quarter. “They’re a physical team and they blitz a lot, so just get the ball in somebody’s hands and see if they can make a play.”

The Orange squandered a chance to regain the lead after Luke Arciniega intercepted Savage’s deflected pass at midfield early in the fourth. Despite help from a personal foul against Pitt, the Syracuse drive stalled and Norton missed right.

Syracuse had one last chance at victory in the final minute, but when the Orange lined up for a 53-yard field goal attempt on a fourth-and-8 play, Pitt called a timeout just as the ball was snapped on what was going to be a fake. Terrel Hunt’s pass fell incomplete when play resumed and the Panthers began celebrating.

“We had it in our hands and we let it slip away,” Orange defensive tackle Jay Bromley said. “We couldn’t get the job done. It’s really frustrating.”

Syracuse had gained a 16-10 lead with 6:25 left in the third when Hunt combined with Alvin Cornelius III for a 42-yard score on a third-and-15 play, and it was spectacular. Hunt, who misfired on five long passes in his previous Carrier Dome start three weeks ago, laid out a long pass down the right sideline and Cornelius, a redshirt freshman, made a fingertip grab as he tumbled into the end zone for his first career score.

Still, Hunt misfired several more times on long passes, none more critical than one just before halftime with Pitt nursing a 10-6 lead.

Pitt’s Kevin Weatherspoon fumbled a punt and Ritchy Desir recovered for the Orange at the Pitt 24 in the final minute, but Syracuse had to settle for Norton’s 41-yard field goal after Hunt’s pass for Durell Eskridge in the left corner of the end zone was ruled out of bounds.

“I feel like I made the catch,” said Eskridge, who played wide receiver in high school but starts at free safety for the Orange. “I kind of bobbled it a little bit at the end, but I feel like I brought it in. The officials made the call and we had to live with it.”

Hunt finished 18 of 28 for 159 yards and Jerome Smith gained 88 yards rushing for the Orange.

For a game that started out as if it might be a romp for the Orange against a team that has struggled to find consistency, Donald’s big paw helped change the outcome.

“You talk about a big play, and that was the first one,” Chryst said. “Guys were mentally tough.”

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