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Pitt’s history as the Death Star of silly football upsets

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When the Panthers beat a top-20 team, they somehow always do so without themselves looking like a top-20 team.

Pitt football vs. West Virginia 2007 Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images. Banner Society illustration.

Great upsets often involve an underdog playing the game of its life to shock an unsuspecting power. They’ve got to play a perfect game, the truism goes.

But Pitt upsets are not like most great upsets.

Think of Pitt as behaving like a grown-up version of this kid:

Pitt in an upset bid is a sweet maniac running around with a knife. A lot of bad things can happen.

In a typical Pitt game, Pitt will have an accident while running around with its knife. But in a Pitt upset, Pitt will accidentally cut the other guy as well, and because the other guy is bigger, that guy will lose blood more quickly.

This has happened time and again. When Pitt beats a better program, it happens despite Pitt playing even more messily than usual. The formula holds even when the better team escapes.

Let’s recount the recent history.

UPSET
2019: Pitt 35, #15 UCF 34

Pitt led 21-0 after a blocked punt return in the first half. The Pitt Upset Bandwagon overflowed with people hailing the Panthers for ending UCF’s 27-game regular season winning streak.

Those people did not understand that the arc of a Pitt upset is not a straight line. If it’s going to happen, it’s going to have peaks and valleys. Even if it’s not going to happen, it’s going to go up and down for a while.

Pitt gave up the next 31 points. The Panthers missed two field goals, one from 28 and another from 43 yards. Your friend on Twitter figured the party was over.

It was most certainly not, as Pitt mounted a 12-play, 79-yard drive that ended with a never-before-seen trick play, invented by Pitt (don’t look it up), called the Pitt Special:

At least a half-dozen Pitt players, including the QB who caught the winning pass, had left the game with injuries. Pitt got outscored 31-0 in less than a quarter of clock time at one point. And the day ended with UCF being dragged off the turf at Heinz Field.

NEAR-UPSET
2019: #13 Penn State 17, Pitt 10

Despite missing a couple of starting defensive linemen, Pitt harassed PSU QB Sean Clifford all day at Beaver Stadium. This paid off when Pitt trailed by seven and had first-and-goal in the fourth quarter. After three failed tries, Pat Narduzzi called for a bizarre field goal, later arguing Pitt needed two scores to win. (Left unsaid was that one had to be a touchdown and that another could’ve been a two-point conversion, and both could’ve come from inside the three-yard line.)

Pitt doinked the short field goal and never got that close again, losing when a Hail Mary fell incomplete at the buzzer. It was the 100th and possibly last time Pitt and Penn State would ever play, much to the delight of every Penn State fan, player, and coach you have ever met.

NEAR-UPSET
2018: #5 Notre Dame 19, Pitt 14

Pitt played most of the game ahead in South Bend and lost by less than anyone else against the Irish in 2018’s regular season. Two missed Panthers field goals were likely the difference. Missed Pitt field goals in upset bids at Notre Dame are sort of a thing. Keep scrolling.

Notre Dame became a Playoff team. Pitt wrapped the season at 7-7 (Pitt will one day go a perfect 8-8) after entering 3-3, though the Panthers did win one of the more mediocre divisions ever.

UPSET
2017: Pitt 24, #2 Miami 14

Most of the people at Heinz Field on the Saturday after Thanksgiving were dressed as yellow seats. Pitt played well but did benefit from some dumb luck, such as a couple of Miami passes to open receivers hitting helpless DBs in the back.

At halftime, Narduzzi guaranteed what would be the Panthers’ fourth straight win against a top-three foe while unranked.

The 10-0 Canes took their first L. Pitt still fell short of bowl eligibility.

UPSET
2016: Pitt 43, #3 Clemson 42

Later the same year, Pitt became the only team to beat the eventual national champs. A handful of Deshaun Watson mistakes helped, but Pitt inexplicably had Clemson’s defense guessing all day.

Pitt didn’t do anything really dumb in this game — how could it have while still beating Deshaun freaking Watson? — but it did need a kicker named Chris Blewitt to make a 48-yard field goal with six seconds left, so we’ll count that toward this win’s chaos factor.

UPSET*
2016: Pitt 42, Penn State 39

*A bit of a weird case, admittedly: Penn State wasn’t thought to be that good when it visited Heinz Field in Week 2. But a Pitt that finished 8-5 with a Pinstripe Bowl loss still beat the eventual Big Ten champion, one of two losses that kept PSU out of the Playoff.

To beat Penn State, Pitt jumped out to a 28-7 lead in the second quarter. Pitt spent most of the rest of the game blowing that lead. Penn State’s DaeSean Hamilton dropped the winning TD on the last drive before Trace McSorley threw an interception in the end zone.

NEAR-UPSET
2012: #4 Notre Dame 29, Pitt 26 (3OT)

A team that finished 6-7 and played in the BBVA Compass Bowl for the third year in a row also went to South Bend and exposed a sham BCS Championship participant weeks before Alabama did.

A missed Pitt 33-yard field goal in overtime is the reason the country was subjected to Notre Dame playing Bama, actually.

This entire game until Pitt’s chance for a walk-off field goal was Pitt punching Notre Dame in the face. The missed field goal itself was Pitt punching Pitt in the face. Both are crucial components.

UPSET
2008: Pitt 26, #10 USF 21

The Bulls were unbeaten, coming off a year in which they’d reached #2 in the AP Poll. At this point, they were still in a conference that wouldn’t necessarily get them shut out of of the title picture. They lost at home to Pitt, which finished 9-4 and unranked.

ALL-TIME UPSET
2007: Pitt 13, #2 West Virginia 9

The centerpiece of this tradition and the most shocking rivalry upset of all time. Let WVU fullback Owen Schmitt explain to me a decade afterward what a dagger this loss was:

There was a lot of hype, and then it just seemed like every week, shit was just falling into place. You know what I mean? And teams were losing that needed to lose for us to move up, and it was happening. And then you get to the fucking last game of the season and blow it against the shittiest fucking team in the fucking world.

The Mountaineers, a home win against a 4-7 team away from clinching a berth in the BCS Championship, instead lost one of the two best title shots the program’s ever had.

Pitt pulled this off despite completing 10 of 19 passes for negative-1.2 adjusted yards per attempt, barely moving the ball, and ending with an intentional safety. But the Panthers did hamper Pat White, which was key to getting the job done.

“If he would’ve been out there, if we play 100 times, we might win one time,” Pitt linebacker Scott McKillop nevertheless told me years later.

Combining this with the 2016 Penn State win, Pitt took title shots away from its two biggest historic rivals within a decade. Pitt’s record in those two years was 13-12.

UPSET
2003: #25 Pitt 31, #5 Virginia Tech 28

The Hokies were 7-1, coming off an upset of #2 Miami. Cornerback DeAngelo Hall was suspended for the first half, and Pitt was pretty decent. This was even a College GameDay game. (There was a time when GameDay went to Pitt, yeah.)

The Panthers were just one-point underdogs on their home field, and they won on a two-yard Lousaka Polite touchdown run with 48 seconds left, after Tech turned the ball over on downs because Frank Beamer didn’t wanna try a long field goal.

Pitt finished 8-5 and unranked.

UPSET
2002: Pitt 28, #3 Virginia Tech 21

The Hokies were 8-0 when Pitt visited on the first weekend in November. Yet Pitt’s upset win was the start of a 2-4 Hokies finish that turned them from frontline contenders to afterthoughts in their second year A.V. (After Vick). There was basically nothing Tech could do, because this was the night Larry Fitzgerald became Larry Fitzgerald.

Pitt would finish 9-4 with an Insight Bowl win, ranked 19th, better than in any of the other years you’ve seen on this list. This is the night a modern tradition was born.

All of this is why we refer to Pitt as college football’s Death Star Superweapon.

The Shutdown Fullcast has adopted Pitt as a spiritual alma mater, centering around a primary joke: Pitt is the Death Star, if the Death Star’s weapons were powered not by kyber crystals, but by ugly football losses.

The Superweapon must charge and charge and charge and charge and charge before finally obliterating a beautiful world in front of everyone. If the Empire’s Death Star fails, don’t worry — Pitt will simply try again with the exact same plan two or three years later forever, sometimes clearly not even waiting to actually finish construction of the program. If Pitt loses to a top-10 team, then the Superweapon simply wasn’t charged enough yet. Give Pitt time to accumulate power (by losing football games).

The Death Star metaphor tracks.

  • Star Wars 4 is about Pitt unveiling the scariest weapon imaginable, astounding everyone by annihilating one of the most beautiful objects in the galaxy (2007 West Virginia), and finishing like .500 because of a glaring flaw (exhaust port/exhausted points).
  • Star Wars 6 is about a half-finished Pitt again terrifying the entire galaxy, but again getting blown up (all of this is every season). Surely at this point, Pitt will try something new.
  • No. In Star Wars 7, Pitt harnesses the power of the Sun Bowl and shocks six other teams to pieces before yet again getting blasted out of existence. Finally, gone for good! (One movie later, Pitt is again just as reckless/dangerous as ever.)
  • Star Wars 9 appears to be about everyone fighting in the ruins of the Pitt Superweapon — the one that was already broken before it even got broken — against the cackling ghost of Mark May.
  • In Rogue One, it sure seems like Pitt loses, but what did it cost the other side? Nearly everything. Rogue One is Notre Dame.