PITTSBURGH, Pa. — Racing Panthers on a clock isn’t the best of ideas … especially when you give them a head start.
Marshall trailed 27-0 at the half, made a valiant second half comeback bid and ultimately came up short Saturday night during a 43-27 setback to host Pittsburgh in a Week 5 non-conference football contest at Heinz Field in the Keystone State.
The Herd (1-3) dropped their third consecutive decision in their first road game of the year, as the Panthers (3-2) held MU to just three first downs and 102 yards of offense in the opening 30 minutes en route to a comfortable 27-0 cushion.
Marshall found its stride after the break, producing back-to-back third quarter scores on its way to scoring 27 of the next 30 points to close to within a field goal at 30-27 with just over four minutes left in regulation.
The Herd defense twice forced third down on Pitt’s ensuing drive, but the hosts came up with answers on both of those occasions — the last of which proved to be a dagger straight to the heart.
With UP facing a third-and-3 at it own 46-yard line, the Panthers elected to throw the ball down field with 1:15 remaining. Nathan Peterman’s pass found its way into the hands of Jester Weah, who then scrambled 54 yards to paydirt while giving the Blue and Gold a 37-27 advantage with 64 seconds left in regulation.
The Herd — with time clearly not in their favor — made one final attempt at another comeback, but a fourth-and-24 pass from Chase Litton was picked off by Avonte Maddox and returned 33 yards to the house with no time left on the clock — wrapping up the 16-point outcome.
By night’s end, the Panthers accumulated almost 200 more yards of total offense (532-344) than the Herd — with most of that difference coming in the opening two quarters of play. Marshall ran only 21 offensive plays in the first half, while the hosts gained 386 yards on 40 plays before the intermission.
Afterwards, seventh-year MU football coach Doc Holliday was dejected by the first half showing … and also made it a point to not celebrate a solid second half performance that ultimately resulted in the program’s first three-game losing skid since 2010 — Holliday’s first season with the Herd.
“It’s obvious that we didn’t play well in the first half. We dug ourselves into a pretty deep hole and we had a bunch to overcome there in the first half,” Holliday said. “We came out in the second half and played the way we are capable of playing, but we just weren’t able to make a couple of stops there at the end.
“Our guys didn’t quit, but this program’s too far along to think that our guys are ever going to quit. We got that thing close late in the game, but our locker room is a mess right now because we didn’t win a game. We expect to win every game that we play and, unfortunately, we haven’t done that in the last few weeks. We just have to get back to work and keep getting better.”
Pittsburgh scored on all three of its first quarter possessions, which covered distances of 75 yards in eight plays, 83 yards in seven plays, and 96 yards in five plays. In fact, the only blemish in that opening period was a missed extra point attempt on the first score of the game.
George Aston gave Pitt a 6-0 edge with a five-yard run at the 11:17 mark, then James Conner increased the lead to 13-0 with 5:03 left following a one-yard run. Maurice French added an 11-yard scamper with 50 seconds left, allowing the hosts to secure a 20-0 advantage through one period of play.
Marshall — which mustered only one first down in the first quarter — made a pair of defensive stops on Pittsburgh’s next two possessions, which led to a loss of downs and a punt.
On the Panthers’ final possession of the first half, however, Tre Tipton capped a seven-play, 81-yard drive by hauling in a 15-yard touchdown pass from Peterman for a 27-point lead with 53 seconds remaining.
MU took the second half kickoff and marched 80 yards in 15 plays while producing its first points of the night as Josh Knight hauled in a 15-yard pass from Chase Litton at the 9:12 mark for a 27-7 contest.
The Herd followed with a successful onside kick, then went 47 yards in eight plays to cut the deficit roughly in half as Anthony Anderson plunged in from 11 yards out for a 27-14 game with 5:20 remaining in the third.
Pittsburgh responded with a nine-play, 73-yard drive that resulted in points as Chris Blewitt nailed a 20-yard field goal with 30 seconds left, making it a 30-14 contest headed into the finale.
In need of a quick score, MU got its wish at 13 seconds into the fourth as Michael Clark hauled in a Litton pass and covered 83 yards on his way to paydirt. The two-play, 86-yard drive allowed the Herd to close to within 30-20.
Following a defensive stand that resulted in a loss of downs, Keion Davis capped a 12-play, 67-yard drive with a one-yard TD run at the 4:01 mark — allowing Marshall to close to within a possession at 30-27.
Pitt outgained the Herd by a 252-104 margin in rushing yards and also came away with the only turnover of the night, which resulted in six points. UP also claimed a 29-18 edge in first downs and posted a 280-240 advantage in passing yards.
Davis led the MU rushing attack with 69 yards on 12 carries, while Anderson added 56 yards on four attempts. Litton finished the night with two rushes for zero yards and was also 20-of-32 passing for 240 yards while throwing two scores and one pick.
Knight led the wideouts with six grabs for 49 yards and Clark had four catches for 147 yards. Ryan Yurachek and Emanuel Byrd also had three receptions apiece for 16 and 11 yards, respectively.
Rodney Allen paced the MU defense with eight tackles, followed by Chase Hancock with seven and Devontre’a Tyler with six stops. The Herd had only four tackles for loss and did not record a sack.
Chawntez Moss led the Pitt ground game with 97 yards on 12 carries. Peterman was 17-of-23 passing for 280 yards and threw two touchdowns. Weah led the UP receivers with seven catches for 176 yards.
Litton was sacked twice by Ejuan Price for a loss of 24 yards. Reggie Mitchell paced the Pitt defense with nine tackles.
The Herd opens Conference USA play on Saturday when they travel to Denton, Texas, for a 7 p.m. kickoff with the North Texas Mean Green.
Bryan Walters can be reached at 740-446-2342, ext. 2101.