FORT WORTH, Texas – Pittsburgh safety Ray Vinopal knows the wild comeback at the Armed Forces Bowl had to be a good one for everyone else to watch.
Vinopal and the Panthers were just on the wrong side of Houston’s improbable 35-34 victory Friday.
Cougars quarterback Greg Ward threw three touchdowns in the final 3:41, the last two after recovered onside kicks, and then completed the game-winning two-point conversion to cap the largest comeback in an FBS game this season – and largest ever in a bowl game that didn’t go into overtime.
“There were a lot of opportunities to make plays,” Vinopal said. “Special teams, offense, and especially defense. I don’t think there’s any way you can point the finger at one person.”
Pitt (6-7) led 31-6 when ACC offensive player of the year James Conner had his second touchdown run with 14 minutes left in the game. The Panthers were still up 34-13 after Chris Blewitt’s 29-yard field goal with 6:14 left.
Everything then started going Houston’s way.
“I don’t think there’s a loss of focus,” interim coach Joe Rudolph said. “I think sometimes when teams make plays and you have to respond to those plays, sometimes it can make you a little bit nervous to just cut it loose and go.”
Ward had an 8-yard TD pass to Greenberry before the Cougars (8-5) recovered their first onside kick. That led to a 29-yard catch by Demarcus Ayers on a fourth-and-13 play with 1:58 left, and Houston tried another onside kick.
While the second one didn’t go 10 yards on the rain-slickened field, the ball was touched by the same Pitt defender who couldn’t handle the first one before Houston running back Kenneth Farrow jumped on it at the Cougars 43. Greenberry started the drive with a 38-yard catch, then on third-and-16 had a 25-yard TD with 59 seconds left.
Along with momentum, the Cougars had been preparing for such a situation to use a two-point play since defensive coordinator Gibbs took over as interim for fired coach Tony Levine. Greenberry made a leaping catch in the back of the end zone.
“The truth is our first bowl practice ... we made a decision that day at practice that if it came down to the end of the game, we were going for two no matter what,” Houston interim coach Gibbs said. “This is a true story. We started practicing the two-point play the very first practice. So we’ve probably run that play, I don’t know, 25, 30 times in practice. “
Ward, the former Cougars receiver, had 237 of his 274 yards passing in the fourth quarter and also ran for 92 yards.
The young Panthers have an FBS-high 81 underclassmen, with Conner, All-ACC receiver Tyler Boyd and quarterback Chad Voytik among 28 sophomores.
Voytik threw was 18-of-35 passing for 222 yards and an impressive 16-yard TD catch by tight end J.P. Holtz between two defenders in the front corner of the end zone. But Voytik had six consecutive incompletions on a final desperate drive when only a pass interference penalty got Pitt a first down.
Boyd had nine catches for 112 yards, his 11th career 100-yard receiving game and moving from seventh to fourth on Pitt’s career reception mark with 163, two more than Larry Fitzgerald.
Conner’s 1-yard TD run a minute into the second quarter capped a 15-play, 92-yard drive, and Pitt led until the final minute of the game. The Cougars had a missed extra point after Farrow’s 2-yard TD in the second quarter when Kyle Bullard slipped while kicking.
The Cougars’ new coach is Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman, who still has one more game with the Buckeyes after they upset top-ranked Alabama in the Sugar Bowl to advance to the national championship game Jan. 12.
Paul Chryst, a Madison native and former Wisconsin offensive coordinator, left Pitt last month after three seasons to become head coach of the Badgers.
New Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi was at the game, a day after his finale as Michigan State’s defensive coordinator in the Spartans’ comeback from 20 points down for a 42-41 win over Baylor in the Cotton Bowl. That game was played inside the Dallas Cowboys’ NFL stadium about 20 miles away Thursday.
“It’s been a bowl season where you’ve seen some comebacks,” Rudolph said. “Obviously this isn’t the side of it you want to be on.”