Perhaps inspired by 34,715 fans booing the home team, Navy quarterback Bill Byrne ran for one touchdown, passed for another and threw for a two-point conversion, all within a 13-second span late in the fourth quarter, as the Midshipmen rallied to tie Pittsburgh, 28-28, today.
Byrne threw a 16-yard touchdown pass to John Lobb, then completed a pass to Mark Stevens for the two-point conversion and the tie with 32 seconds to play as the Midshipmen (3-3-1) completed one of the most memorable comebacks in the school's history.
Trailing by 28-14, with 2:35 to play, Byrne, who established two school passing records today, directed his team on two wonderful drives against a frustrated Panther defense, booed often by a crowd that has not been at all pleased during Pitt's 1-6-1 season.
Taking over at its 32, Navy moved 68 yards as Byrne completed three passes to Chris Weiler (nine receptions for 157 yards) and a third-down pass to Mark Stevens for a first and goal at the Pitt one. Byrne scored on a sneak from there to cut the deficit to 28-20 with 1:07 left in the game.
Todd Solomon's conversion kick banged off the crossbar, however, and Pitt seemed very much in command.
But Solomon's so-called "kangaroo" onside kick was perfect and Navy's Greg Stefanon came up with the ball at the Panther 46. "We call it a kangaroo kick because it rolls along then pops up in the air," Navy Coach Gary Tranquill said.
Byrne, who completed 22 of 48 for a school-record 340 yards, found Weiler in the middle of a confused Pitt secondary for 30 yards and a first down at the 15. Three plays later, Byrne ducked underneath a heavy rush and hit Lobb on a corner route in the end zone for a 16-yard touchdown.
Navy, which had a similar comeback to upset North Carolina (33-30) earlier, needed two points to tie. Everyone knew Byrne would throw, including the Pitt defense. But Byrne fooled the Panthers by rolling to his right, stopping and turning to the left to throw a soft pass to Stevens, alone in the end zone.
"The play was for Mark all the way," said Byrne, who also had four passes intercepted. "I got the flow thinking I was going right and turned and just lofted it to Mark. I threw it soft because I wanted to make sure he got it."
The Midshipmen weren't quite through.
Pitt, which dominated play in the first half and led, 21-7, got a break when Solomon's second attempt at an onside kick went out of bounds. The Panthers took possession at their 47.
On the first play, Navy's Eric Fudge intercepted a poorly thrown pass by Chris Jelic. Fudge fumbled, but Mike Taylor recovered and Navy had the ball at its 47 with 39 seconds left.
But Byrne threw an interception 11 seconds later, giving Pitt a chance to pull out the victory. Jelic couldn't move the Panthers and the Midshipmen took over on downs at their 48 with four seconds to play.
Byrne threw a long pass toward Weiler in the end zone, but a sea of arms swatted the ball down and the game ended with a wave of boos intended for the Panthers and Coach Foge Fazio.
"I don't know what to say. If fate has to have it that way, then fate has to have it that way," said Fazio, who has come under heavy criticism this season after his team was ranked in the top 10 in preseason.
"I'm just puzzled," Fazio continued. "The players don't deserve this to be happening to them. It was pretty exciting until the end."
Tranquill, who contradicted his image as a conservative coach with several daring gambles late in the game, wasn't overjoyed with the tie despite his team's fourth-quarter effort.
"Hey, we didn't come here to tie. I thought we could win the game at the end," said Tranquill. "Chris (Weiler) came up with some great catches and Todd made up for his miss (conversion attempt) with those onside kicks."
The first half had been a demonstration in Pitt power football. Running mostly behind tackles Bill Fralic (6-5, 285) and Randy Dixon (6-4, 286), Panther running backs Craig Heyward (140 yards on 30 carries), Marc Bailey (37 yards on eight) and Marlon McIntyre (34 on eight) found nice holes for good yardage and the hosts were able to maintain drives.
McIntyre completed a 70-yard drive with a 12-yard scoring run on Pitt's first possession for a 7-0 lead.
Navy pulled even on an 18-yard pass play by Byrne to Tony Hollinger with two seconds left in the period.
But Navy couldn't stop the Panther running game. Aided by a questionable pass interference call on Eric Wallace, who injured his hamstring on the play, Pitt used almost nine minutes to drive 88 yards. Bailey carried eight times and Heyward five, including the final four yards, to put his team up, 13-7, with 5:45 left in the first half.
"They were running the ball right down our throats," said Navy linebacker Taylor. "We weren't playing them straight up and didn't play good defense."
Another pass interference call, this one against Tommy Metzger, kept a Pitt drive alive in the final seconds of the half. With 11 seconds left, Pitt quarterback John Congemi, subbing for Jelic, threw a 30-yard touchdown pass to Bill Wallace, who barely got a foot in bounds. Heyward ran over the two-point conversion and Pitt led, 21-7.
"That touchdown right there hurt us," Tranquill said. "That lousy pass interference call."
Navy cut the deficit to 21-14, on a Chuck Smith one-yard run midway in the third period. But Pitt pushed its lead back to 14 points when Heyward scored on an 18-yard run on a draw play with 1:47 left in the period.
That lead looked insurmountable until the final minutes. That was when the real Pittsburgh team showed up.