It has been a season-long trend: The Pittsburgh Panthers have failed to execute at critical moments late in games, most specifically on offense.
Four times this season, Pitt has failed to hold onto a second-half lead, including in a loss to West Virginia last week.
But we can rewind. Go back to Week 3. After jumping out to a 24-3 lead on Iowa, the Panthers' final four possessions of the game ended in a field goal, turnover on downs, punt and an interception. The defense had just as much to do with the loss after collapsing in the second half, but that was probably its worst performance of the season.
The following week, Notre Dame went up 15-12 in the fourth quarter and Pitt got the ball back with plenty of time left in the game to win it. But the Panthers took 12 plays to move 24 yards and turned it over on downs. Tino Sunseri was sacked on two of the final four plays of the drive.
With a 10-point lead on Cincinnati in the second half, Pitt turned the ball over on consecutive possessions and the Bearcats turned them into 10 points. Of their five possessions in the fourth quarter, Pitt had three punts, lost the ball on downs and missed a field goal.
But what happened against West Virginia last week was perhaps the worst of all. Pitt had a 20-7 lead on the Mountaineers, but the offense fell apart in the second half when Zach Brown and Ronald Jones left with injuries. The Panthers managed one field goal in the second half, but most galling of all was that Pitt took nine sacks on the final 25 plays of the game.
Much of that falls on Sunseri, who has had a penchant for holding onto the football way too long all season. Coach Todd Graham has repeatedly said that Sunseri has to learn to get rid of the football. Yet it is Week 14, and Sunseri is continuing to make the same mistakes.
"It seems like when we play ahead of people we are OK, but any time we have a situation come down to making a drive to win we have zero success," Graham said. "It comes down to executing the fundamentals and looking at what you are supposed to look at. There are a lot of factors that go into that. The bottom line is we played very poorly in the last 25 plays of the game. On the same end there were other opportunities that we missed."
Pitt is playing well enough on defense every week to win. This is perhaps the most improved defensive unit in the Big East from the start of the season until now. But the offense continues to struggle. Graham said he is sticking with Sunseri this week in the finale against Syracuse, with a bowl bid on the line.
There is no question this has been a tough season for the Panthers all around, with the number of injuries they have had to deal with and the scheme change on offense that has not worked as well as Graham had hoped. But the Panthers do have a chance to play on, and that is something they are focused on this week.