PITTSBURGH — The sense of foreboding was unmistakable. A long completion. A once seemingly safe lead in serious peril.
Pittsburgh has been here before. Too many times to count in recent years, actually.
First-year coach Pat Narduzzi could feel the anxiety coming from his players as Virginia drove for a potentially tying score late in the fourth quarter Saturday. Then his defense, the one that is quickly becoming the identity of a rapidly improving team, did what it has done often during the first month of the season: it made a stand.
The Panthers forced Virginia quarterback Matt Johns into four straight incompletions in the final minute to preserve a 26-19 win and give Pitt its first 4-1 start since 2009.
"Hopefully now we'll get some respect around the country and people will start noticing this is a different team than we had in the past," tight end Scott Orndoff said.
It certainly feels different. When Johns found T.J. Thorpe for 32 yards on fourth-and-25 with a minute to go, Narduzzi could hear the Panthers chirping. He put a stop to it.
"They hit a pass on us and some of our kids start to go 'Oh no, here we go again,'" Narduzzi said. "We've talked about that. We're not going back that way. We're not taking that route and kids believe."
When Johns' next fourth-down pass sailed high and wide of Thorpe, the Panthers exhaled. While they remain very much a work in progress, at this moment they're less focused on style points than results. Pitt never trailed and led by 13 points in the fourth quarter yet couldn't put away the Cavaliers (1-4, 0-1 ACC) until the final seconds.
"There are so many plays we could have made more and not turn it into the good game that it was," Narduzzi said. "I'd rather be relaxing going into the fourth quarter but they're making us earn our money, that's for sure."
Nate Peterman passed for 222 yards and two touchdowns for Pitt. Chris James ran for 94 yards. Qadree Ollison rushed for 49 yards and a score but also fumbled at the Virginia 1 in the fourth quarter, giving the Cavaliers enough wiggle room to keep it close.
"We need to learn how to grind it out," Peterman said after the Panthers became the 19th Football Bowl Subdivision school to reach 700 wins.
Johns completed 17 of 33 for 209 yards and a touchdown with an interception. The Cavaliers have dropped 12 straight road games dating back to 2012.
"We battled today but not good enough to win a football game," Virginia coach Mike London said. "Pitt is a good football team and you have to be able to capitalize and minimize your mistakes."
Narduzzi stressed he wouldn't allow his team to get to high after an emphatic road win at Virginia Tech last week, a win cemented by a defense that stopped the Hokies on three consecutive possessions in the last 10 minutes to preserve a four-point lead.
The Panthers certainly came out sharp, racing to a quick 17-3 lead. Peterman hit Orndoff for a 37-yard touchdown pass on game's fifth play, Chris James ripped off a 48-yard sprint to set up a 4-yard scoring run by Ollison later in the first quarter and the Panthers appeared to be in firm control.
Virginia, two weeks removed from a 42-point home loss to Boise State, struggled to gain any traction. Several times the Cavaliers had receivers running open deep in the secondary in the first half only to narrowly miss a momentum-turning play. The defense, surprisingly, produced a touchdown when Mike Moore slammed into Peterman. The ball popped up in the air and defensive end Kwontie Moore snagged it, taking the first turnover produced by Virginia all season and chugging 27 yards to the end zone to bring the Cavaliers within 17-10.
Pitt extended its lead back to 13 when Matt Galambos returned an interception 51 yards to set up Tyler Boyd's pretty 8-yard touchdown reception. When Johns was tackled in the end zone for a safety, the Panthers were up 26-13.
The Cavaliers made it 26-19 when Johns found Canaan Severin for a 32-yard score with 5:50 to play. Johns' fourth-down heave to Thorpe seemed to give Virginia hope but the win the Cavaliers desperately need to breathe some life into a disappointing season never materialized.
"We're very close," Johns said. "It's just a matter of two or three plays."
AP College Football Website: http://www.collegefootball.ap.org