For a second consecutive year, Pitt ended its season with a dismal loss in Birmingham. This time, a 38-17 loss to Ole Miss. The 38 points scored by Ole Miss were a new BBVA Compass Bowl record, as well as the announced attendance of 59,135.
Pitt entered the game playing without its star running back Ray Graham, who was held out because of a hamstring injury. Earlier in the week, the team suspended Arthur Doakes for a violation of team policy, meaning there would be a new starter at guard. Cameron Saddler was suspended for the regular season finale against South Florida, and was later ruled out today due to an ankle injury. Shane Gordon did not practice this week, and therefore, did not start.
Then when the game started, the hits continued. Hubie Graham left late in the second quarter with an apparent knee injury. Graham had been battling injuries all season. Then, linebacker Eric Williams--who played virtually every down on defense this year--left the game in the second half with a knee injury.
Whether any of these players would have made the difference or not, we'll never know that. But it's not as if Pitt had a lot of guys just waiting in the wings to take over. That much was evident, as there were few plays to be made anywhere--especially on offense--as Pitt never got in any kind of mode.
"I give Ole Miss credit," head coach Paul Chryst said after the game. "They were clearly the better team."
Pitt had a new look on offense with Rushel Shell making the start at running back, and Zenel Demhasaj at right tackle, and starter Matt Rotheram moving inside to right guard. On defense, Joe Trebitz replaced an injured Shane Gordon at linebacker. In addition to that, Anthony Gonzalez made his first-career start at safety.
The Panthers were able to move the ball on their opening drive, as Tino Sunseri completed a 13-yarder to Mike Shanahan. Shell ran the ball well on the first drive, but it all ended with a Sunseri interception. Senquez Golson stepped in front of Ronald Jones, the intended receiver, and picked off the pass. Ole Miss took over at the Pitt 23.
Bo Wallace hit Ja-Mes Logan with a 9-yard touchdown pass, completing a five-play, 23-yard drive. Ole Miss led 7-0 with 10:18 left in the first quarter.
After a three-and-out, Ole Miss answered with another touchdown. This time, Wallace led the Rebels on a 10-play, 72-yard drive, capped by a 27-yard touchdown pass to a diving Randall Mackey. It was evident early on that Pitt was having a hard time, on both sides of the ball, competing with the Rebels' speed.
"We felt they were going to come ready to play, and they did a good job of executing all day," safety Jarred Holley said. "They did a great job playing today."
Pitt was forced to punt again. The only sign of life, a 14-yard run from Shell. Ole Miss led Pitt 14-0 after one quarter. Wallace completed 10 of his first 12 passing attempts for the Rebels in the first quarter.
After carrying the ball on the first three drives, Malcolm Crockett came into the game at running back on Pitt's fourth series of the game. Shell had been playing well, but Crockett gave the offense a different kind of spark when he came in the game. He started off with a 16-yard reception off a screen pass, followed by a 10-yard run.
But, after two big plays, Sunseri was stripped of the ball while rolling out to his right. Ole Miss forced by Mike Marry and recovered by linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche.
Ole Miss was in excellent position to take a 21-0 score, which in all likelihood should have ended the game right there, but Jason Hendricks came up with a turnover of his own. Hendricks returned the ball to the Pitt 44. Pitt took over, still down two scores, but couldn't take advantage of the turnover. On third down, Ole Miss' pass rush came breaking through the left side. Sunseri attempted an impromptu screen pass, but it was thrown too high for the intended receiver Shell.
Still with no points, the Pitt defense was still able to keep the offense in the game. Ole Miss, however, was putting itself in a hole with some mistakes of its own. It started with a 10-yard holding penalty on that ensuing punt return. They started this next series at their own 10. Then, it was another holding call that cost them half the distance to the goal. Finally, a short completion where the receiver's knee was ruled down at his own three yard-line.
Pitt was able to capitalize. Todd Thomas chased Ole Miss quarterback Wallace to the corner of the end zone. Wallace, attempting to just throw the ball away, had his pass tipped by Hendricks. K'Waun Williams was able to pull in the tipped pass for an interception, Pitt's second in as many series. Pitt took over at the Ole Miss 25.
The Panthers got on the board as Sunseri hit Devin Street for a 10-yard touchdown pass. After seemingly being out of it, Pitt made it a 7-point deficit, with 7:10 left in the first half. It looked like Pitt was about to turn a corner.
Ole Miss answered quickly, thanks large in part to a big return from Jaylen Walton. That set up the Rebels at the Pitt 48. it only took them five plays to get in the end zone, which was capped by a 23-yard touchdown run from Vince Sanders.
Kevin Harper added a 47-yard field goal to make it a 21-10 game. Pitt moved the ball okay, but couldn't get much in the way of pass protection or any big passing plays. Ed Tinker was able to come up with a 14-yard reception, and Shell had a 11-yard run. Despite a sustained drive, the Panthers couldn't get inside the 20. They drove 45 yards in 10 plays in just under five minutes.
Ole Miss was able to answer with a 31-yard field goal right at the end of the first half, taking a 24-10 lead into the locker room at halftime.
"Any time you can answer a score with a score, it's big," Chryst said. "They did a good job."
Ole Miss got off to a fast start, then hurt itself by its own mistakes, then closes off the half with a pair of quick scores. Even though Pitt was reasonably in the game, Ole Miss was in control. Their successes created the lead, their failures kept Pitt in it.
The Pitt defense tightened up later in the drive--a tackle for loss by Jarred Holley, a pass breakup and a third down stop for Thomas. The drive looked to be getting away from Pitt after the defense jumped offsides on a 4th-and-3. The Rebels missed a 44-yard field goal, giving the Panthers the ball on their own 27 with 10:57 left in the third quarter.
Pitt couldn't answer, going three-and-out.
Ole Miss drove the ball on its next turn on the field, but a pair of high snaps--including one that resulted in a 21-yard loss. The Rebels ended up having to punt, despite getting as far as the Pitt 38.
Pitt answered with another three-and-out, including a near interception by Serderius Bryant. He snuck behind an intended Pitt receiver at the line of scrimmage, to tip away Sunseri's intended pass.
Ole Miss answered on the next drive, as Barry Brunetti--Ole Miss' second quarterback--ran it in from a yard out with 21 seconds left, giving the Rebels a commanding 31-10 lead. Pitt had -2 yards of offense in the third quarter.
I'tavius Mathers closed the scoring with a 62-yard touchdown, with just under nine minutes remaining, making at a 38-10 lead.
Tino Sunseri ended his Pitt career with a 16-of-32 performance for 185 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. His interception was thrown on his second passing attempt of the game, the first in 272 passing attempts dating back to the Virginia Tech game in Week Three.
Shell rushed for 79 yards on 25 carries. Street led Pitt's receiving efforts with 7 catches for 83 yards and the touchdown. The most impressive performances for Pitt came on defense; Hendricks with 17 tackles and an interception, Hale with 13 tackles and a sack. Hendricks' 16 tackles are the most for a Pitt defender with 15 tackles in a game since Scott McKillop had 17 against Cincinnati in 2008.
Hendricks finished the season with six interceptions, the most for a Pitt player since Shawn Robinson also had six back in 2000.
"We did a lot of work, and a lot of guys put a lot into it," Chryst said, reflecting on his first year. "I'm not going to label it anything (good or bad)."