PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh coach Paul Chryst spent a week watching his team practice following a disappointing loss to Iowa and believed the Panthers were mature enough to move on.
Didn't quite look like it Saturday against Akron.
Their physical running game stuck in neutral and their erratic defense unable to get off the field at crucial times, the Panthers fell 21-10 that brought any early momentum generated by a 3-0 start to a complete and sudden stop.
"Football tests a lot of things and we're at a point right now where we've got to tighten up the reins a little bit," Chryst said. "We've got to learn from this one no doubt."
The unheralded Zips (2-2) held Pitt star running back James Conner to a season-low 92 yards on 25 carries. The nation's leading rusher never got going. Facing a defense that often had eight or nine players at the line of scrimmage geared to stop him, Conner couldn't find the open space he ran to with ease during the season's first four weeks.
"I knew everybody was going to stack the box and key on me," Conner said. "I know it's coming and I do what I can to break tackles but it wasn't enough today. They wrapped up. They were hitting low at the legs, gang tackling. It was good play by them."
And frustrating play by the Panthers (3-2), who committed seven penalties — including one that wiped out a touchdown that would have tied the score in the third quarter — and turned it over twice.
Akron outgained the Panthers 382-349 and kept Conner in check to give coach Terry Bowden the biggest victory of his three-year tenure. Conor Hundley one-upped the nation's leading rusher, gaining 148 yards on 19 carries as Akron beat a team from a power conference for the first time since 2008.
Kyle Pohl passed for 193 yards with a touchdown and an interception and defensive lineman Cody Grice — moonlighting at fullback — put together a pair of short scoring runs on a day the Zips hardly looked like a team that had been outscored 69-20 in consecutive losses to Penn State and Marshall.
"Last week was not one of our best games at all, but we went back to the drawing board all this week in practice and went back to the basics," Hundley said. "We went back to our roots, and we came out playing tough, hard-nosed football. And that helped us out in this game."
The Panthers blew a 10-point halftime lead to Iowa last week but stressed it wouldn't affect them moving forward. Yet they couldn't seem to find a rhythm against the Zips, who sported metallic gold helmets that reflected brilliantly at sun-splashed Heinz Field.
This was no last-second stunner. Akron controlled the second half, taking the lead for good early in the third quarter when a 42-yard sprint by Hundley set up a 1-yard plunge by the 283-pound Grice to make it 14-7 early in the third quarter.
The Panthers responded by driving to the Akron 6 and appeared to tie the score when Voytik hit Tyler Boyd for a touchdown. A holding penalty, however, wiped out the score and when Voytik's fade to the corner of the end zone glanced off Kevin Weatherspoon's fingertips, Pitt had to settle for a 34-yard field goal by Chris Blewitt that made it 14-10.
Akron, however, wouldn't stop coming. With Pohl's steady hand leading the way, the Zips moved 70 yards in 10 plays, the last two with Grice bulling his way across the goal line.
"It brought back memories of high school, man, it's great," said Grice, whose last score came three years ago during his senior year at Firestone High in Akron.
Pitt's last legitimate threat ended when Akron's DeAndre Scott picked off Voytik deep in Zips' territory midway through the fourth quarter. When Akron stuffed Pitt on fourth down with 1:34 remaining, the Zips erupted in celebration while Pitt walked to the locker room in stunned silence.
The Panthers open the meat of their ACC schedule next week at Virginia, the swagger they showed in a road victory over Boston College three weeks ago long gone.
"Our goals are on the line," Pitt senior safety Ray Vinopal said. "If that doesn't get people ready to go there shouldn't be anything that needs to be said."
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