Pitt beats Syracuse, snaps 3-game losing streak
Pitt senior safety Ray Vinopal’s emotions have run up and down the psychological scale this season:
• Subdued triumph after Pitt started the season 3-0.
• Agonizing frustration after a stretch of six losses in seven games.
• Carefully constructed focus while preparing for one final push.
His mind started racing again Saturday after Pitt (5-6, 3-4 ACC) defeated Syracuse, 30-7, before a crowd of 32,549 at Heinz Field.
Perhaps he was fueled by the smiles of his parents and grandmother as he stood on the 50-yard line during pregame senior day festivities.
More likely, it’s knowing hope lives among his teammates. The victory did more than snap a three-game losing streak. It kept alive for another week the chance to earn a bowl bid — as fleeting as that may be.
The season is reduced to one game in Miami on Saturday, but for Vinopal, that’s enough.
“One-game playoff,” Vinopal said. “We have to win to keep moving.”
Vinopal, who forced a fumble in the first quarter that was recovered by fellow senior Todd Thomas and led to Pitt’s first touchdown, set some goals before the season.
“We were talking about the ACC championship,” he said, “but just because you don’t reach your goals doesn’t mean you stop.”
Thank the defense — that’s right — for Pitt dominating the Orange (3-8,1-6).
After allowing 147 points in the past three games, the defense stepped up when the team needed it most, creating three turnovers and holding Syracuse to one touchdown in Pitt’s most decisive victory against an FBS team this season. Pitt intercepted two passes for the first time since the Boston College game Sept. 5.
“We were talking before the game,” Vinopal said. “You don’t want to be the unit that isn’t doing their job.”
Senior linebacker Anthony Gonzalez, whose Pitt journey has included disappointing defeats and myriad position switches, led the team in tackles (eight). He said the losses hurt, but they didn’t damage the attitudes of the players.
“We are a strong team,” he said. “We are always fighting. We keep our faith. We don’t get down on ourselves.
“There were several games we could have won, and we didn’t let that get to our heads.”
If ever there was a game that might have led to a letdown, it was Saturday.
Running back James Conner, who leads the ACC in rushing with 1,600 yards, scored a touchdown on a 1-yard run in the first quarter to tie Tony Dorsett’s school record (22). But he left the game before halftime with a hip injury and did not return. No one knows the extent of the injury — coach Paul Chryst said he will know more Sunday — but the team never lost a beat without its most productive runner.
Freshman Chris James and senior Isaac Bennett stepped in admirably against the ACC’s fifth-ranked defense, and it was like no one missed Conner (a near-miracle in itself).
James ran 19 times for 122 yards, and Bennett added 75 on 11.
“He gave me a look and said, ‘Hey it’s your time,’ ” James said of Conner. “It was tough to see him going down, but it was great to still have him out there helping me out.”
Others filled the void, too.
Quarterback Chad Voytik was as efficient as can be expected. His only interception jumped in and out of the hands of wide receiver Dontez Ford in the end zone, but Voytik completed 14 of 20 passes for 189 yards and two touchdowns.
Wide receiver Tyler Boyd played with a purpose, returning the opening kickoff 96 yards for an apparent touchdown that was called back by a holding penalty.
He also returned a punt 29 yards and scored on a 49-yard catch-and-run in which he sprinted through a thicket of defenders and outraced them all into the end zone. He ended up with seven receptions for 126 yards.
“Every game my number is called, I want to make plays,” said Boyd, who has recorded five 100-yard games, four in a row and 10 for his career.
“It feels like everything is opening up (for the team) with the run and the pass. I told the guys to block and I’m going to do the rest, and that’s what they did.”