PITTSBURGH — Some ambitious Pitt students look out at a group of event security staff and uniformed cops, stationed about 15 yards from the wall that separates Pitt’s student section from the playing surface at Heinz Field. Pitt is 4-7, but seconds from finishing off unbeaten, No. 2 Miami in the Panthers’ last game of the year, 24-14.
“Those are fake tasers,” one says. “We’re going either way.”
A field-storming is taking shape. A bottleneck is forming at the first row, and the undergrads are rationalizing how easy it’s going to be to overtake the guards.
“You gotta go fast,” another says. “Ricky Bobby, you gotta go fast.”
“You’re not first, you’re last, baby,” adds another.
The idea is simple. The wall is maybe seven feet above the field, but it’s no more than a three-foot drop to a trash can, and a water jug next to it can further shorten the drop. With the right attitude, you could be on the field and charging forward in a second.
But there is a problem. This is a noon game on Black Friday, featuring a losing team that has to scrap to draw fans. There are like 250 students here.
“I’m from around here,” says Nick Wilkie, a freshman a few rows back. “I had nothing else to do today. Might as well watch a good game.”
The field-stormers don’t have the numbers. One of the event staffers eyeballs them and mouths, “No, no, no,” and some cops are glaring. A few kids put their legs up on the ledge. The students stay in the stands and sing “Sweet Caroline.”
These students are surprised by the win, but they’re not stunned. Pitt teams shocking top-two opponents has become routine practice.
In 2007, 4-7 Pitt beat No. 2 West Virginia in a regular season finale just like this one. In 2016, Pitt beat No. 2 Clemson in Death Valley, becoming the only team to top the eventual champs. The Panthers also beat then-unranked Penn State, which went on to win the Big Ten.
Pitt had no national relevance in any of these years, except for these results.
“We have had the history of beating No. 2 teams. But Pitt will, like, lose games they shouldn’t lose, but they’ll win games they shouldn’t either,” Dominic Campbell, a sophomore from nearby Squirrel Hill, said. “It’s just a crazy program.”
Campbell is at the game by himself. Most of his school friends aren’t in town, and most of those who are in town didn’t come. The stadium atmosphere is unique. The announced attendance is 35,978, but the upper reaches of this NFL building are mostly empty. That suggests apathy, but the people who are here are loud as hell.
“It’s my last chance to go to a Pitt game as a student,” Maninder Singh, a senior, said. “I graduate in December. I wanted to come out one last time, so I decided, ‘You know, let’s go, let’s watch this, let’s try to shock the world.’”
Miami seemed oddly overwhelmed. The Canes called pre-snap timeouts on offense, had trouble finding the ball on defense, and didn’t capitalize even when things went their way. They brought out their Turnover Chain twice but went three-and-out each time. Miami was outplayed all afternoon and trailed 24-7 before a garbage-time TD.
And gradually, the Pitt crowd transformed from a smattering of yinzers who wanted something to do on a holiday Friday into a full-throated frenzy.
The mascot was holding up a We Want Bama sign by the end. The students who opted against a field-storming taunted Miami into the visitors’ tunnel.
Miami had been flirting with a loss like this all season.
The Canes are not frauds. They proved their legitimacy beyond any doubt when they beat Virginia Tech and shellacked Notre Dame in back-to-back weeks. They’ll still make the College Football Playoff if they can beat Clemson in next weekend’s ACC Championship Game.
But of course Pitt would be a pain in the Canes’ asses. They’d struggled to various degrees with Toledo, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Syracuse, North Carolina, and Virginia. The Canes’ running game had been weirdly bad in a couple of those, especially the FSU and UNC wins. It was bad against Pitt, with a 3.2-yard average not including four sacks of quarterback Malik Rosier, whom Pitt harassed all day.
For his part, Rosier had a bad game at a bad time. He had a bunch of passes batted down, a bunch of deep balls go just too far, and two passes carom off the backs of Pitt defenders who couldn’t have had less of a clue where the ball was. Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi game-planned to stop the run, and Miami couldn’t beat single coverage.
Miami might’ve been fine if it had converted its two takeaways into points, or if it had managed to run or throw effectively against America’s No. 73 scoring defense.
“This is one of those games where we didn’t take advantage of our opportunities,” Rosier said afterward.
But Miami didn’t run a single play in Pitt’s red zone, only connecting on two longer touchdown passes to Ahmmon Richards and Braxton Berrios. Pitt could’ve won by more than the 10 it did, and that won’t build confidence heading into Clemson week.
So Pitt, again, finishes a 5-7 year with the most marquee of wins.
It was Pitt’s highest-ranked home win ever, ahead of a triumph over No. 3 Fordham in 1941. Pitt’s won four games in a row against top-three teams while unranked, a truly mind-bending stat. (Previously: Virginia Tech in 2002, WVU in 2007, Clemson in 2016.)
The Panthers are the city’s No. 3 sports option this time of year behind the Penguins and Steelers, their co-tenants. Everything else about this season will be forgettable. The Pitt signage on the field’s outer wall was gone within 90 minutes of the game going final, and by the time the Steelers play Green Bay on Sunday, this’ll be in the past. The only way for Pitt to keep the limelight for long is to win more.
Pitt is surrounded by legacy programs — Ohio State and Michigan a few hours to the West, Penn State a few hours to the East — and has a hard road to national contention. College football’s a sport where everything really does start with belief, because teams can’t recruit if they don’t inspire it. If they can’t recruit, they can’t win, and Pitt is bracketed by programs that inspire a whole lot of belief.
Pitt’s trying, though. The Panthers’ history of these confounding upsets gives them that confidence, to the point that the coach can guarantee a win on TV at halftime with a three-point lead on an unbeaten opponent.
PAT NARDUZZI JUST CALLED HIS SHOT AND WALKED OFF pic.twitter.com/vJAr5fX23b— Connor O'Gara (@cjogara) November 24, 2017
And he can be right.
“I felt pretty good,” Narduzzi said afterward. “I wouldn’t have said that if didn’t feel pretty good. I guess I believe, right?”