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Jerry DiPaola
Pitt's Chris James carries during the first half against Syracuse on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2015, at The Carrier Dome in Syracuse, N.Y.

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Pat Narduzzi raised his arms in frustration, muttered something almost unintelligible and turned his back to the field like a coach whose team had let him down.

Those Theatre 101 classes at the University of Rhode Island paid off.

The game was in the balance — with the score tied and less than five minutes remaining — and Pitt looked to be losing its grip on first place in the ACC Coastal Division. It was fourth-and-7 from the Pitt 48 when Narduzzi told his punt team, “Hey, run the fake.”

Punter Ryan Winslow took the snap, rolled out and flipped a 12-yard pass to linebacker Matt Galambos. First down.

“It was a nice pitch and catch,” said Winslow, who played quarterback in high school as a freshman.

After that, the 23-20 victory against Syracuse (3-4, 1-2) was all but assured for Pitt (6-1, 4-0), and the only element that remained was Chris Blewitt’s 25-yard field goal at the buzzer, his second winner in two weeks.

No one heard Narduzzi’s call, except the punt team. Not even Pitt wide receiver Tyler Boyd.

“The crowd was going nuts,” Boyd said. “I thought it was for Syracuse. I looked up, and it’s us.”

“I did a good job acting,” Narduzzi said. “I knew Scott (Shafer, Syracuse coach) was probably looking over.”

The fake was just one of 19 plays on the final drive that covered 89 yards in 9 minutes, 20 seconds. Pitt started at the 5-yard line, with most of the noisy 29,832 at Carrier Dome raising a ruckus.

The Panthers converted four third downs, including a 17-yard catch by Dontez Ford.

“That’s big-time,” Narduzzi said. “That’s how you win football games.”

Qadree Ollison, who has rushed for 662 yards while replacing 2014 ACC Player of the Year James Conner, converted three of those third downs. He said he looked forward to the challenge of moving the chains with the game on the line.

“That’s football. That’s what makes it such a great sport,” said Ollison, who grew up two hours from Syracuse in Niagara Falls, N.Y. “Those are some of the biggest moments in the game. You have to own up to those moments.”

The goal was to keep the football away from the Syracuse offense, which solved the Pitt defense in the first half.

Syracuse led 17-13 at halftime, scoring two touchdowns, including at the end of the half when the Orange drove 75 yards in 1:11.

But Pitt allowed only a field goal after halftime — it hasn’t surrendered a touchdown in the third quarter since the opener — and intercepted Syracuse quarterback Eric Dungey twice. Dungey had thrown only one interception in the first six games.

Galambos had one — he alertly tipped it to himself — and cornerback Lafayette Pitts had the other, catching the ball inches from the turf. That set up one of two short touchdown runs by Ollison, who totaled 103 yards on the ground.

“We just executed what the coaches were calling,” Pitts said. “And we were making tackles. In the first half, we were leaving a lot of tackles on the field. We just buckled down and were making sure we were making the open-field tackles.”

After rushing for 87 yards in the first half, Syracuse ended up with 136.

The rally marked Pitt’s first fourth-quarter comeback in six years.

The victory also was the fourth in a row for Pitt, all coming by seven points or fewer. It sets up a nationally televised showdown with North Carolina (6-1, 3-0) on Thursday night at Heinz Field with first place in the Coastal Division at stake.

“They continue to get better and build confidence,” said Narduzzi, whose defense will get a stiffer test against the Tar Heels. “The kids believe and understand what you’re coaching.”

There still are several holes to be fixed, but Pitt is becoming relevant for the first time since the coaching turmoil started in 2010.

“If you don’t know, now you know,” senior center Artie Rowell said. “This team is for real.”

Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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