PITTSBURGH — Finishing well has been a problem for the University of Maine football team.
That wasn’t the case Saturday afternoon, but even a furious fourth-quarter charge wasn’t enough to overcome a Bowl Championshp Subdivision opponent.
Pittsburgh built a 20-point lead and held off a late UMaine charge to earn a 35-29 victory over the Black Bears in front of 41,000-plus fans at Heinz Field.
UMaine (1-1) started poorly and was plagued by poor field position and special teams play, but rallied to make a statement.
“One of the concerns last week was that we didn’t play 60 minutes and I thought we did this week,” said UMaine coach Jack Cosgrove.
Senior quarterback Warren Smith led the Bears on back-to-back scoring drives in the last nine minutes, generating some confidence heading into next week’s game at Albany.
“If you can be successful against a team like Pittsburgh, a Big East team, with throwing and catching the football, there is room for optimism,” Cosgrove said.
Pittsburgh (2-0) started well, then answered UMaine’s challenges. The Panthers had two second-half scoring drives that put the game away.
“That game was definitely playing down to our competition,” said Pitt coach Todd Graham. “We didn’t play well.”
The Panthers scored three times in the first quarter to take a 12-0 lead — as the Bears ran nine plays for minus-7 yards. Pitt then scored three times in the second half to build a cushion.
The Bears showed resilience and persistence, scoring 14 points in the last nine minutes.
“They are a talented football team,” Cosgrove said. “A lot of the things we got beat on were our execution more than our mistakes.”
Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri completed 21 of 35 passes for 224 yards and tailback Ray Graham gained 121 yards on 28 carries and scored three touchdowns.
The Panthers outgained the Bears only 381-371 in total yards.
“It was a really good experience coming out here, even though we still lost,” said Bears defensive end Michael Cole, who made eight tackles, including 2 1/2 of their seven sacks.
“We felt toward the end of the game that we could have had a chance at winning,” he added.
Smith had another strong performance. He completed 27 of 45 passes for 334 yards and three TDs and was not intercepted for the second straight game.
Senior split end Derek Buttles led the receivers with seven catches for 148 yards and a score, while Derrick Johnson (5-54) and Derek Session (6-50, TD) also played big roles.
The Bears managed only 37 rushing yards.
Senior safety Jerron McMillian made 10 tackles to spearhead the defense. Linebacker Arron Achey added two sacks and LB Shawn Bodtmann 1 1/2.
Linebacker Troy Russell made nine tackles.
K’Waun Williams and Shane Gordon logged six tackles each for Pittsburgh.
UMaine generated some confidence with a TD late in the third quarter. It came after a low snap resulted in a 4-yard punt.
On the first play, Smith found Buttles over the middle for a 42-yard completion to the 5-yard line. On the next, Smith hit Session in the end zone on a play-action pass. Holder Chris Treister of Cape Elizabeth ran for the conversion to get UMaine within five at 20-15 with 6:13 left in the quarter.
“Defensively, we’re giving up stupid plays in the passing game. It’s ridiculous and it should not be happening,” coach Graham said.
Pitt responded by going 60 yards on 11 plays, capped by Sunseri’s 3-yard TD pass to Mike Shanahan. The kick made it 28-15.
An interception by Darlos James thwarted the Pitt’s next series, but the Panthers scored again after forcing UMaine to punt.
Backup quarterback Trey Anderson led Pitt 52 yards on 11 plays. Zach Brown’s 1-yard run gave the hosts a 20-point cushion (35-15) with 8:39 to play.
“Pitt said, holy cow, we’ve got a ballgame here,” Cosgrove said. “I credit them for responding the way a good football team should.”
The Bears didn’t roll over. Smith went 7-for-8 on the ensuing possession, including a 26-yard, third-down completion to Justin Perillo. That set up David Hood’s 1-yard TD run with 3:12 to play and Harvey’s kick made it 35-22.
Pitt missed a field goal, giving the Bears the ball back. Smith completed five throws, among them a 36-yarder to Buttles. McDonald’s leaping grab of a 2-yard, fourth-down pass later capped the drive with three seconds left.
Harvey added the kick.
The Bears trailed 20-7 at halftime after struggling with field position. Pitt scored on three of its first four possessions, three of which started in UMaine territory.
Aided by a running-into-the-kicker penalty, the hosts marched 76 yards on their first possession. Ray Graham’s 1-yard dive gave Pitt a 6-0 lead.
Kevin Harper made it 9-0 on a 44-yard field goal with 6:02 left in the first quarter.
The Bears continued to struggle offensively and a shanked 14-yard punt by Jordan Waxman gave Pitt the ball at the UM 23-yard line.
UMaine prevented a touchdown, but Harper’s 25-yard field goal made it 12-0 on the third play of the second quarter.
The Bears began to establish some rhythm on offense. Smith completed four passes for 44 yards and carried three times for 20 yards to spark the drive.
Pushaun Brown’s short gain on a fourth-and-two run from the 30 prolonged the march, which culminated with Buttles’ leaping catch of a Smith pass in the end zone.
Harvey’s PAT got the Bears within 12-7 at the 9:13 mark.
Pitt re-established itself late in the half and surged 72 yards on 12 plays. Sunseri fired a 25-yard pass to tight end Hubie Graham on a fourth-and-five play. Ray Graham scored on a 3-yard run that made it 20-7.