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East Hartford — Pittsburgh, a team which went toe-to-toe and hit-for-hit with No. 4 Notre Dame a week ago before losing in triple overtime, was simply no match for UConn.
For nearly three quarters.
The Panthers, however, sure made the Huskies sweat in the fourth quarter, nearly overcoming a 24-0 halftime deficit before UConn held on for a 24-17 Big East victory Friday night before 33,503 at Rentschler Field.
The Huskies, whose season was on the brink of extinction, not only handed Pitt one last parting shot before the Panthers leave for the ACC — and before a national television audience no less — but kept their remote bowl hopes alive.
UConn (4-6, 1-4), though, must beat No. 11 Louisville (9-0) and Cincinnati (6-2) in their final two games to become bowl eligible.
“It’s a great feeling,” UConn coach Paul Pasqualoni said. “We’ve been in four games where we’ve lost by seven points or less, so it’s nice to be on the other side.
“What’s important is how you react. I think everyone can learn a lesson the way these kids don’t get down. They stay up, they don’t get discouraged and they come in every day and they work and work and work.
Pitt (4-6, 1-4) had pulled within a touchdown when Tino Sunseri threw an 18-yard touchdown pass to Mike Shanahan with 2 minutes, 46 seconds remaining, but after electing not to go for the onside kick and putting the Husky offense back on the field, the Panthers paid for it when Chandler Whitmer converted a huge third-and-seven by hitting Shakim Phillips for 17 yards with 2:27 remaining and the Huskies ran out the clock.
“We just decided, ‘This is it. We want the game on our shoulders,’” left guard Steve Greene said. “We couldn’t put our defense back on the field. We wanted to finish the game on the field.”
Whitmer finished 19-for-25 for 213 yards and a touchdown while tailback Lyle McCombs had his best game of the season rushing for 120 yards on 29 carries and scoring UConn’s first rushing TD since a Sept. 29 game against Buffalo.
The Huskies marched 75 yards for a touchdown on their opening drive and never took their foot off the pedal in the first half. They dominated all three phases in their most complete 30 minutes of the season in building a 24-0 halftime lead.
Whitmer was 11-for-15 for 150 yards and a touchdown during that decisive first half, tight end Ryan Griffin had six receptions for 84 yards and a score, and the offensive line finally provided McCombs with some room to roam and he responded with 66 yards on 15 carries.
The Huskies also got a big lift from Nick Williams, who returned a punt 80 yards for a touchdown, and enjoyed another steady performance from a defense led by linebacker Sio Moore, who finished with six tackles and two sacks.
“I couldn’t be more proud of the team,” Moore said. “It wasn’t just one side of the ball. It was the offense, the defense and special teams. … The defense, we came out and set the tone in the first half of the game and we held off until the offense, who I feel should always be the last guys on the field, they took care of it for us and we couldn’t be more proud.”