In the sports writing world, we call this lede re-write number three. That is what Pitt and UCLA created at the Sun Bowl. In a back-and-forth game that seemed over when UCLA scored with 34 seconds left, Pitt beats UCLA 37-35 in El Paso Friday.
Among The Missing
The Panthers went in missing many of their starters, either through bowl opt-outs, the transfer portal, or injuries. Starting quarterback Kedon Slovis is in the transfer portal. Calijah Kancey, one of the best defensive players in the country, was sitting out as he gets ready for the NFL. Pitt was depleted. UCLA had most of its star power but was mysteriously missing running back Zach Charbonnet, who practiced all week but did not suit up for the game for undisclosed physical reasons.
UCLA came to the game with starting quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson who was going to come away owning most of the UCLA quarterback records in his fifth season. But Pitt had Nick Patti, a backup quarterback who had been beaten out for the starting job for three straight seasons. In the end, it was Thompson-Robinson who watched from the bench with a back injury, and Patti with the Moxy who delivered the game-winning drive.
DTR And Patti
It could have been and should have been a mismatch. With Charbonnet, it likely would have been for UCLA. While Keegan Jones is a nice running back, Charbonnet is an All-American. Not having him in the game made UCLA’s offense decidedly more one-dimensional. It put too much of the burden on Thompson-Robinson. And what UCLA got from him was indicative of his career in Westwood; flashes of brilliance, coupled with mind-numbing mistakes. He finished 15 of 23 for 262 yards and two touchdowns but added three critical interceptions.
The story of the game though will be Patti. He was a rather pedestrian 20 of 41 passing for 232 yards, one touchdown, and one interception. But he also ran for 72 yards on the day, with the final 11 of them deciding the game.
Pitt got out to a 3-0 first-quarter lead with a Ben Sauls 22-yard field goal. UCLA answered with a quick seven-play scoring drive. Thompson-Robinson hooked up with Kam Brown for 51 yards over the middle of the field to the Pitt 11-yard line. From there it was Thompson-Robinson to Logan Loya who caught it at the four-yard line and made his way into the end zone for a 7-3 UCLA lead. Thompson-Robinson also got called for unsportsmanlike conduct when he head-butted a Pitt player in the end zone. The two teams had been going at each other since the pre-game walk through and it remained chippy most of the day.
Pitt added another Sauls field goal, this one from 49 yards, to make it 7-6 UCLA game.
Bruins Strike Early
It was another big play drive for UCLA on the Bruins next possession. Thompson-Robinson connected with Titus Mokiao-Atimalala for 49 yards to the Pitt four-yard line. Three plays later Thompson-Robinson scored from a yard out on the quarterback keeper to extend the lead to 14-6 UCLA.
The Bruins were in the red zone at the Pitt 13-yard line when Thompson-Robinson threw his first interception of the game. The pass intended for Loya at the six-yard line was intercepted by Tylar Wiltz.
That led to Pitt’s first touchdown of the game with some help on the ground from Rodney Hammond, Jr. He accounted for 27 yards on three carries. Patti also completed a pass up the middle to Bub Means for 45 yards. It was Patti to Means for 15 yards and the touchdown. Then it was Patti to Konata Mumpfield for the two-point conversion and the tie game at 14-14.
The Bruins had one more touchdown drive in them before the end of the half. Thompson-Robinson led a 70-yard drive that ended with a pass to Mokiao-Atimalala completed at the five-yard line and he took it in for the 21-14 halftime lead.
While the game was close, and even with the interception leading to a Pitt touchdown, UCLA seemed in command of its game and its schemes, particularly against an undermanned Panthers team.
Mistakes Haunt UCLA Again
In the second half, Thompson-Robinson threw another drive-killing interception. The Bruins were in the red zone. Tight end Michael Ezeike was open, but Thompson-Robinson ripped the ball far too hard. It bounced off Ezeike and was picked off by Javon McIntyre.
The Bruins did get back on the board when Jaylin Davies jumped the pass route, intercepted Patti, and ran it back 52 yards for the pick-six and the 28-14 lead.
But UCLA could not protect its leads throughout the game. Hammond picked up another 18 yards of rushing on the next drive, including a one-yard touchdown run that cut the lead back down to one score at 28-21 at the end of the third quarter. UCLA’s offense had become stagnant. The Bruins had only eight yards passing in the third quarter on two of five throwing with the interception.
On the first play of the fourth quarter, Thompson-Robinson did not see Bangally Kamara drift into the coverage and he threw it right into the linebacker’s hands at the UCLA 30-yard line. Kamara returned it to the 18-yard line. Five plays later, it was Hammond ramming through the middle from seven yards out and the score was tied at 28-28.
Pitt got two field goals from Sauls, (31 and 27 yards) to extend the lead to 34-28. More alarming for UCLA was that after the interception to begin the quarter, Thompson-Robinson spent the rest of the period on the bench being treated for an apparent sore back.
A Miracle Win?
Ethan Garbers was in at quarterback and completely out of rhythm as he was sacked three times in his first two possessions.
The blue and gold lightning appeared to strike in the closing minutes. The Bruins got the ball on downs after Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi inexplicably called a shotgun play on 4th and one at the UCLA 28-yard line. The play lost three yards and UCLA took over at their own 31.
Running back T.J. Harden ran for 34 yards up the middle to the Pitt 32-yard line. Four plays later it was Garbers to Jake Bobo for 14 yards to the Pitt eight-yard line. Then it was Harden again, this time for the final eight yards and the touchdown. With the Barr-Mira PAT, it was 35-34 UCLA with 34 seconds left.
That UCLA Defense
But that UCLA defense, which has been a sore spot during the entire Chip Kelly era reared its ugly head again. The Bruins rushed just three players in a prevent defense. Starting at his own 25-yard line, Patti completed two passes for 35 yards to the UCLA 40. Then with no timeouts left and the clock running Patti scrambled up the middle. He bounced off defenders to get the first down which stopped the clock one more time. It was enough for Pitt to spike the ball to stop the clock for good. In a swirling wind, Sauls kicked a 47-yard field goal for the 37-35 Pitt win.
Most of the Pitt players who had decisions to make about their futures made them by not appearing in the game. For UCLA, it is assuredly Thompson-Robinson’s last game even though he could reclaim his 2020 eligibility because of the Covid season. It is certainly the end for Charbonnet who likely is one of the top five running backs picked in the upcoming NFL draft. Others have decisions to make about the portal or the NFL in the coming days.
Both teams finished the season 9-4.