Pittsburgh — Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Mark Whipple installed the play he dubbed “Pitt Special” during the second week of training camp.
Whipple had his first-stringers run it once against the starting defense and it worked. So he made sure the Panthers practiced it during Thursday walkthroughs and tucked it in his back pocket just in case.
Just in case arrived late Saturday afternoon with Pitt trailing 15th-ranked UCF by six and a minute to go. Facing fourth-and-2 at the UCF 3, an official came over and told Whipple the Panthers could still get a first down if they got to the 1.
“Nah, we’re going to score,” Whipple said.
In a way that could prove to be the turning point in Pitt’s season. UCF’s, too.
Running back A.J. Davis took a direct snap from center, ran to his left and flipped the ball to Aaron Mathews, who was heading right. Matthews, a former high school quarterback, thought he might have to make a run at the pylon. When two UCF defenders closed in, Mathews pulled up and found quarterback Kenny Pickett in the end zone, giving the Panthers a euphoric 35-34 victory.
“Kenny claims he has the best hands on the team,” Mathews said with a smile. “He’s one for one.”
One very big one.
On a day Pickett threw for 224 yards and a score and added 61 on the ground despite exiting for a couple of series late in the third quarter after bruising his right (throwing) shoulder, his heady decision to find a spot in the UCF zone defense and wait for the ball ended UCF’s 25-game regular-season winning streak.
UCF had won 27 of its last 28 overall, including the Knights’ American Athletic Conference championship game victories the last two years along with their Fiesta Bowl loss to LSU last year.
The play borrowed heavily from the “Philly Special” run by the Philadelphia Eagles in their Super Bowl win over the New England Patriots two seasons ago. The Panthers put their own spin on it. While Eagles quarterback Nick Foles was wide open in the end zone, Pickett’s job was more complicated. He faked a block and then turned into a tight end while waiting for Mathews to find him.
“We were all pumped up about (the call),” Pickett said. “I know Aaron was. I have a touchdown catch before him. He was a little (ticked) off about that. We switched roles for a play.”
UCF (3-1), which hadn’t lost since a non-bowl game or conference championship game since falling to South Florida in November 2016, had one last-gasp drive but went nowhere. The Panthers sacked true freshman quarterback Gabriel Dillon twice to deal the Knights’ shot of earning a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl as the nation’s top Group of Five team a serious blow.
“I just think that we did some things — coaches and players — that you can’t do on the road if you want to beat a good football team,” UCF coach Josh Heupel said. “This one is going to hurt for a while, but we’ll get back on Monday and get back after it.”
Dillon passed for 338 yards and two touchdowns but also threw his first two interceptions of the season. Gabriel Davis hauled in 10 passes for 151 yards and two scores, but the Knights’ high-tempo offense didn’t run as efficiently as it had during three blowouts to start the year.
UCF finished with 423 yards, 180 under its season average. Dillon was sacked six times in all and the Knights were unable to finish off Pitt despite a 31-point outburst spanning the second and third quarters that turned a 21-point deficit into a 10-point lead.
“Give credit to Pitt,” Heupel said. “They played a good game and found a way to be plus-one on the scoreboard. I’m proud of the way our kids competed and played.”
Trailing by three touchdowns for the first time since a blowout loss to Michigan in 2016, UCF responded emphatically, with a little help from the Panthers.
Davis fumbled deep in Panther territory with 5:41 left in the first half. Adrian Killins scored four plays later and UCF was off and running. Gabriel found Gabe Davis for two third-quarter touchdowns sandwiched around an 87-yard punt return for a score by Otis Anderson, who broke several tackles while racing down the left sideline to the end zone.
Yet Pitt rallied. The Panthers were coming off an emotional seven-point loss to rival Penn State last week, a defeat in which head coach Pat Narduzzi took significant heat for opting to kick a field goal deep in Penn State territory in the final minutes instead of trying to go for a game-tying score.
Backup quarterback Nick Patti threw his first touchdown while Pickett tested out his injured shoulder and when the defense forced UCF to settle for a field goal with 4:36 left to keep the game within reach, Pickett guided Pitt 79 yards in 12 plays, the last three coming on a reception that UCF didn’t see coming.
“You guys always want me to go for it on fourth down,” Narduzzi said. “We may never punt again … That’s a big-time victory.”
More Top 25
(At) No. 1 Clemson 52, Charlotte 10: Trevor Lawrence threw two first-half touchdown passes and Clemson won its 19th straight.
Lawrence and the Tigers (4-0) put the first matchup between the two teams away in a hurry. Lawrence threw a 58-yard touchdown toss to Tee Higgins and K’Von Wallace scored on a 66-yard interception return to give Clemson a 14-0 lead in the first five minutes Lawrence came out of the game after throwing a 3-yard touchdown pass to Cornell Powell on the first play of the second quarter.
Charlotte (2-2), which had been averaging 47 points a game, had no chance to rally against Clemson’s defense.
(At) No. 2 Alabama 49, Southern Miss 7: Tua Tagovailoa passed for 293 yards and five touchdowns in just three quarters and Alabama rolled over Southern Miss.
Tagovailoa had his second straight five-TD game and the Crimson Tide (4-0) raced to a 28-0 lead in the first 19 minutes in yet another lopsided victory. Last season’s Heisman Trophy runner-up completed 17 of 21 passes.
The Golden Eagles (2-2) couldn’t keep up with speedy Tide receiver Henry Ruggs III early. Ruggs had a career high in receiving yards even before the first quarter ended, with touchdowns of 45 and 74 yards in the opening nine minutes.
He finished with four catches for 148 yards, all in the first half and all on four targets. He sprinted to the end zone on a slant pattern for the 45-yarder, then topped that after slowing down to catch the ball before accelerating to the end zone.
Najee Harris gained 110 yards on 14 carries to become the Tide’s first 100-yard rusher since last season’s LSU game. Jerry Jeudy caught a pair of TD passes and finished with 96 yards on six catches.
No. 4 LSU 66, (at) Vanderbilt 38: Joe Burrow tossed four of his school-record six touchdown passes to Ja’Marr Chase and threw for 398 yards to lead LSU.
LSU (4-0, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) beat Vanderbilt (0-3, 0-2) for the eighth straight time and improved to 12-5 all-time in Nashville in the first game between these SEC charter members since 2010.
The Tigers showed off their new high-powered offense, scoring their most points this season and most ever in regulation against an SEC opponent. They needed 2:11 or less on their first seven scoring drives, and LSU scored 4 seconds after Micah Baskerville returned an onside kick 46 yards to open the third quarter on Burrow’s fifth TD pass.
Baskerville later blocked a punt he recovered for a TD.
Burrow became both the first LSU quarterback to throw for 350 yards or more in three straight games, and his 357 yards passing by halftime also was the most in school history. Burrow opened the game hitting 13 of his first 14 for 244 yards before his second incompletion at 9:19 in the second quarter. He finished 25 of 34 before leaving the game early in the fourth quarter.
Chase caught TDs of 64, 25 and 51 yards in the first quarter and added a 16-yarder in the third. He finished with 10 receptions for 229 yards, most by an LSU receiver since Odell Beckham Jr. had 204 against Furman in 2013.
No. 8 Auburn 28, (at) No. 17 Texas A&M 20: Bo Nix threw a touchdown pass and JaTarvious Whitlow ran for a score as Auburn built a big lead and withstood a late charge from Texas A&M.
Nix didn’t put up flashy numbers against the Aggies, but he looked poised and didn’t make any big mistakes in his first true road game in front of a rowdy crowd of 101,681. Fellow freshman Joey Gatewood replaced Nix for a few snaps throughout the game and he threw his first career touchdown pass in the first quarter.
The Tigers (4-0, 1-0 SEC) were up 21-3 before A&M (2-2, 0-1) finally got going offensively in the fourth quarter. Mond cut the lead to 21-10 with his first touchdown pass early in the fourth before Auburn added a touchdown rushing. But the Aggies made a field goal before Mond connected with Ainias Smith on a 15-yard TD pass with just over two minutes left to get them to 28-20.
But Auburn recovered the on-side kick and ran out the clock.
Mond had 335 yards passing but Texas A&M previously solid running game was held to just 56 yards.
(At) No. 9 Florida 34, Tennessee 3: Kyle Trask threw for 293 yards and two touchdowns in his first start in nearly seven years and Florida extended its dominance in a series that used to be the most prominent in the SEC’s Eastern Division.
Trask’s first collegiate start was far from perfect, though. The fourth-year junior lost a fumble and threw two interceptions against the Volunteers (1-3, 0-1 SEC)
But he did enough to overcome those miscues and lead Florida (4-0, 2-0) to its 14th win in its last 15 games against Tennessee. Trask completed 20 of 28 passes, none better than the ones that went for touchdowns to Kyle Pitts and Freddie Swain.
Trask connected with Pitts for a 19-yard score on the opening drive of the game and then hooked up with Swain for a 29-yarder to cap Florida’s first possession of the second half.
(At) No. 12 Texas 36, Oklahoma State 30: Sam Ehlinger passed for four touchdowns and Texas ended four years of frustration against Oklahoma State to open the Longhorns’ Big 12 schedule.
Ehlinger had his third four-touchdown passing game of the season for the Longhorns (3-1, 1-0), who had lost four in a row to the Cowboys. Texas also had lost its last five home games in this series dating back to 2010.
The Texas defense held Oklahoma State’s two big offensive weapons - running back Chuba Hubbard and wide receiver Tylan Wallace - mostly in check.
Hubbard, the nation’s leading rusher coming into the night, ran for 121 yards and two touchdowns but averaged just 3.3 yards per carry. Hubbard twice got stuffed short near the goal line on key drives for the Cowboys early and late.
Wallace, who came into the game tied for the national lead with six touchdown receptions, didn’t find the end zone against the Longhorns and had just two catches in the second half.
Hubbard’s second touchdown got the Cowboys (3-1, 0-1) within a touchdown with 1:37 to play, but Texas recovered the onside kick and killed the clock when Ehlinger ran 29 yards on third down.
No. 16 Oregon 21, (at) Stanford 6: Justin Herbert threw two of his three touchdown passes to Jacob Breeland and Oregon won its Pac-12 opener for the first time since 2014.
The Ducks (3-1, 1-0) used an efficient day from Herbert and another smothering defensive performance to end a three-game losing streak to the Cardinal (1-3, 0-2). Stanford has lost three games in a row for the first time since 2008.
(At) No. 21 Virginia 28, Old Dominion 17: Zane Zandier returned an interception 22 yards for a touchdown, part of a dominant defensive second half, as No. 21 Virginia rallied past Old Dominion 28-17 on Saturday night to remain undefeated.
Old Dominion’s failed fourth-down try in its own territory set up Virginia’s go-ahead score, a 7-yard touchdown run by Wayne Taulapapa with 10:16 to go for a 21-17 edge.
The Cavaliers (4-0) are off to their best start since opening 5-0 in 2004. The Monarchs (1-2) have lost two in a row, both to in-state ACC opponents. They lost to Virginia Tech two weekends ago, a year after stunning the Hokies in Norfolk.
No. 22 Washington 45, (at) BYU 19: Jacob Eason threw for 290 yards and three touchdowns and Washington scored two touchdowns off three BYU turnovers to coast to a victory.
The Huskies (3-1) totaled 470 yards on offense, with Eason completing 24 of 28 pass attempts. Aaron Fuller, his top target, tallied 91 yards on eight catches. Fuller had one touchdown catch and returned a punt 88 yards for another score.
Zach Wilson threw for 277 yards and a touchdown on 26 of 42 passing to lead BYU. It wasn’t nearly enough to help the Cougars (2-2) prevent the Huskies from dominating in all three phases of the game.
No. 23 Cal 28, (at) Ole Miss 20: Chase Garbers threw for four touchdowns, but California needed a game-saving tackle at the 1-yard line from linebacker Evan Weaver on the game’s final play.
Cal (4-0) was in control until the final six minutes, when reserve quarterback John Rhys Plumlee led Ole Miss (2-2) on a late rally to wipe out a 28-13 deficit. Plumlee was stopped by Weaver for no gain on fourth down at the 1-yard line as time expired.
Garbers completed 23 of 35 passes for 357 yards, including TDs of 9 and 60 yards to Jordan Duncan and Jake Tonges on the opening two possessions of the third quarter, setting up the late defensive heroics.
The Rebels got strong performances from quarterbacks Matt Corral and Plumlee, who led the final two possessions. Corral had a 1-yard scoring run and was 22-of-41 passing for 266 yards before leaving with a rib injury. The Rebels had 525 yards of total offense but failed on two scoring opportunities with missed field goals.
Cal finished with 433 yards of total offense, including first-half touchdown passes by Garbers of 6 and 13 yards to Trevon Clark and Christopher Brown Jr. The Golden Bears were efficient offensively, going 6 for 12 in third-down situations and 3 for 3 in the red zone, capped by touchdowns.
SMU 41, (at) No. 25 TCU 38: Shane Buechele threw for 288 yards with two touchdowns and ran for another score as SMU ended a seven-game losing streak in the rivalry and improved to 4-0 for the first time since 1984.
The Mustangs went ahead to stay after jumping ahead 15-0 in less than 10 minutes. Their last 4-0 start came when TCU and SMU were Southwest Conference rivals, and not long before crippling sanctions led to the NCAA’s so-called death penalty when the Mustangs didn’t even field a team in 1987 and 1988.
TCU true freshman quarterback Max Duggan’s third touchdown pass of the second half came with 3:37 left. The Frogs got the ball back a minute later after a three-and-out by SMU, including a snap that Buechele wasn’t ready for that resulted in a 23-yard loss.
But after TCU coach Gary Patterson opted against trying a 51-yard field goal attempt, Duggan’s fourth-down pass never had a chance and SMU ran out the clock.