PITTSBURGH – Junior running back Conor Hundley rushed for a career-best 148 yards as the Akron Zips came into Heinz Field Saturday afternoon and upset the Pittsburgh Panthers, 21-10, ending a two-game Akron losing streak.
“Give Akron credit today. They came to play.” Panthers head man Paul Chryst said afterward. “They did things in the course of the game to win it, and we didn’t.”
Akron (2-2) picked up its first win over a team from one of the ‘Power Five’ Conferences since September 6, 2008 when UA defeated Syracuse 42-28. That win over the Orange was also Akron’s last non-conference road victory until Saturday.
Pittsburgh (3-2) lost their second consecutive game after starting the season 3-0. The Panthers lost to a Mid-American Conference opponent for just the fourth time in their 125-year history of intercollegiate football.
Akron came into the game off a bad loss at home to Marshall the previous Saturday and was a 22-point underdog on the road. However, as coaches often say, “That is why they play the games”
Neither team dented the scoreboard in the first 15 minutes, but the UA special teams forced the game’s first turnover midway through the period when Panthers KR Tyler Boyd was bumped into by one of his own players. The contact forced a fumble, which was recovered by junior DB Bryce Cheek on the Pitt 22.
One of the problems for the Zips offense over the first three games was its inability to score points off turnovers. It happened again after the fumble as junior quarterback Kyle Pohl’s fade pass into the end zone was intercepted by DB Ray Vinopal.
Midway through the second period, the home team scoring as sophomore QB Chad Voytik engineered a 10-play, 80-yard drive that ended with a touchdown. He found fifth-year senior WR Manasseh Garner on a skinny slant from eight yards out, giving the Panthers a 7-0 lead.
The Zips responded to the score, with one of their own on the third play after the touchdown. From the UA 48, Pohl went deep to WR Mykael Traylor-Bennett who had to come back for the ball. After making the reception, he shrugged off his defender and scored to tie the game 7-7. The score stood up through halftime
Pohl finished the afternoon going 15-of-29 through the air for 193 yards with the TD to Traylor-Bennett (his third of the season) and the interception. On the play with the pick, Pohl suffered an apparent knee injury and was replaced by redshirt freshman Tommy Woodson. The Pittsburgh native, playing in front of family and friends, was in for the next two series and moved the offense marginally. Pohl later returned.
The Zips, who outgained Pitt 180-167 in the first half, got the ball to start the third quarter and quickly began to control of the game.
One the first play of the opening drive, Hundley broke though the line, cut to the outside and sped down the sideline for 42 yards into Pitt territory. Pohl then had two big pass completions -- one each to junior WR Zach D’ Orazio and sophomore WR Franshon Bickley. An 11-yard burst by Hundley gave UA a first down at the Panthers’ four.
Akron then turned to 5-11, 284-pound defensive lineman Cody Grice. The former high school running back battered his way in two plays later for his first collegiate TD to put UA up 14-7.
When asked about scoring the touchdown, Grice said “It took me back to my high school days. I didn’t expect to get the ball three times in the game (and score two touchdowns).”
On the Panthers possession after the touchdown, Voytik moved the ball from his own 37 yard line to the Zips six. It appeared Pitt had tied the score when Voytik connected with Boyd in the end zone for a score. However, offensive holding was called, negating the touchdown. The Panthers had to settle for a 34-yard field goal from sophomore PK Chris Blewitt, making the score 14-10.
Late in the third quarter, Akron began a key 10-play, 70-yard drive. The trip included three Hundley runs and three straight completions by Pohl.
When asked about his career afternoon, Hundley deferred credit to the team saying “Our offense was great today, and so was our defense. Anytime you do that you have a good chance of winning the football game.”
Hundley was one of three Zips who missed the Marshall game with injuries but played vital roles in this game. Senior LB Justin March returned after an undisclosed injury and had six total tackles (three solo). Fellow senior RB Jawon Chisholm, coming back from an ankle injury, entered into the game in the third quarter and rushed for 15 yards on three carries.
When Akron advanced to Pitt’s two-yard line, it again called on Grice, and he rammed his way in off right tackle for a 21-10 Zips lead.
Asked about the play for both of Grice’s scores and Bowden said, “It is called our WHAM package. My Father (Hall of Fame coach Bobby) implemented it. and all of us have had it in our playbooks.”
Down by two scores, Pitt went to the air on its next possession,
After starting from their own 14, the Panthers used five completions to move the ball to the UA 37. Sophomore CB DeAndre Scott then ended the drive with an interception.
There was 9:30 remaining, but UA’s offense took nearly four minutes off the clock with a seven-play drive and Zach Paul’s 59-yard punt left Pitt inside its own five. The Panthers moved 65 yards on 14 plays. When Voytik’s fourth-and-five pass from the Akron 32 fell incomplete, Akron took over 1:34 left and ran out the clock.
“It is all about execution.” Chryst said. “We just could not get anything going today. It is a great game when you execute. They made the plays and we didn’t.”
One of the things Bowden has stressed all season to his team is winning the turnover battle. The Zips were a plus-three after the first two games (against Howard and Penn State). Against the Thundering Herd they turned the ball over four times while getting one. On Saturday, the finished with a plus-one (two takeaways and one giveaway).
There were two keys to the game defensively for UA.
The first was containing Pitt RB James Conner. The sophomore gained 699 yards in the first four games to lead the Football Bowl Subdivision, averaging 174.4 yards per game. The Zips defense held him to 92 yards (only 26 coming in the second half). “They outplayed us today. They just beat us” Conner said.
The second was containing the Panthers offense as a unit. Pitt came into the game averaging 39 points and 443 yards of total offense. On this day, the Panthers gained 349 yards but were held to just 10 points.
When Pohl went into the victory formation, the Zips had their first win over an Atlantic Coast Conference opponent since 2006 when they won at North Carolina State. The Wolfpack head coach that day was Chuck Amato, who is the current defensive coordinator for UA.
The Zips are 2-2 for the first time since 2008 and will have little time to enjoy the victory as they open Mid-American Conference play Saturday at InfoCision Stadium against Eastern Michigan. The Eagles who are 1-3 on the campaign and had the week off after their 73-14 loss at Michigan State.