With Pitt’s return to the Sun Bowl to face Stanford to close out Pitt’s 2018 football season, the infamous 3-0 loss in the Sun Bowl 10 years earlier was revisited by the press and Pitt fans as a game Pitt fans would like to forget about. That got me to thinking, what were Pitt football’s 10 most ignominious and memorable defeats?
Which is the greater defeat and embarrassment? Losing in record fashion with an incredible amount of talent to a good opponent at home or losing at home to a large underdog with far-lesser talent? Or let a game that seems well in hand get away in record fashion? Pitt’s been there and done that.
Before we get to the 10 most ignominious and memorable defeats in modern Pitt football history, those Pitt losses that earn the distinction of dishonorable mention:
November 23, 1968 – at Pitt Stadium, it was third-ranked Penn State 65 Pitt 9. In what would be the third-loss in a row amidst a 10-game losing streak to Penn State head coach Joe Paterno, Penn State scored the first nine times they had the football and had a 45-9 lead at halftime. The Nittany Lions rushed for 456 yards and 618 yards of total offense. Penn State held Pitt to negative 17 yards rushing on 27 attempts.
November 6, 1971 – Notre Dame 56 @ Pitt 7 – How dominant was Notre Dame against Pitt this day? Notre Dame rushed for 464 yards and had 534 yards of total offense. Pitt would make only seven first downs on the afternoon and gained only two yards of offense in the second half.
November 16, 1996 – @ #14 Notre Dame 60 Pitt 6 – Pitt did its part in waking up the echoes for Notre Dame. The 60 points scored by the Fighting Irish were the most points they had scored in a game in 10 years and their 54-point margin of victory, the largest margin of victory in nearly 20 years. Notre Dame scored 40 points in the second quarter and led 40-0 at halftime and at one point in the game led 53-0 before Pitt would score a 4th quarter touchdown.
December 5, 2009 – Cincinnati 45 Pitt 44 @ Heinz Field. Pitt had a three-touchdown lead in a game with just 1:26 on the clock before halftime in a game that was for the Big East championship and a trip to the Sugar Bowl. The ensuing kickoff to Mardy Gilyard and his 99-yard touchdown return changed everything.
November 9, 2017 – UNC beats Pitt 34-31 with a third-string quarterback at Heinz Field making his first collegiate start. It would be North Carolina’s first win over a Power 5 conference foe in 369 days and the Tarheels only one in 2017. If any play typified Pitt’s night was when Quadree Henderson was heading for the pylon on a jet sweep, got stripped of the ball just before the goal line and a North Carolina linebacker picked it up and raced 64 yards before being tackled.
I started out by talking about the memorable 3-0 Pitt loss in the 2008 Sun Bowl to Oregon State, but once you go through this list, quite honestly, it only rates a dishonorable mention.
December 31, 2008 – Oregon State 3 Pitt 0 in the Sun Bowl. It was the lowest-scoring bowl game since Air Force and TCU tied at 0-0 in the 1959 Cotton Bowl. Oregon State played without their two star offensive players, Jacquizz and James Rodgers. As Paul Zeise, who covered the game for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote, “Players and coaches all would love to forget this Sun Bowl….there haven’t been many worse football games ever played, and certainly not in modern day football. The 2008 Sun Bowl was easily the most dreadful football game I ever attended.”
Which brings us to the 10 most ignominious losses in modern Pitt football history:
10. September 21, 2003 – Toledo upsets #9 Pitt 35-31. To that point Pitt was the highest-ranked team to ever play in the Glass Bowl in Toledo and the Panthers let a 10-point lead mid-way in the fourth quarter get away. Pittsburgh-native sophomore quarterback Bruce Gradkowski led the Rockets on their two final drives of 98 and 83 yards to beat the highly-ranked Panthers. Gradkowski completed 49 of his 62 passes and threw for 461 yards against the ninth-ranked Panthers.
9. August 30, 2008 – Bowling Green upsets #25 Pitt 27-17 at Heinz Field. In the 2008 season opener at Heinz Field, the Panthers were a 13-point favorite and had a 14-0 lead, outgaining the Falcons 137 to 6 in the first quarter. Going into this game, Pitt had never lost to a MAC team at home, winning all 24 of their previous games against MAC schools. It was Pitt’s worst upset home loss since losing to South Florida in 2001.
8. September 21, 1996 – Ohio State 72 Pitt 0. It was the worst defeat in school history. Thankfully, it didn’t happen in front of a home crowd but rather in Ohio Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. The Buckeyes had a 52-0 halftime lead and the game wasn’t as close as the score indicated. The Panthers would amass four first downs, total, and only 120 yards of offense for the game. How bad was Pitt that day? David Boston returned a punt for a touchdown for Ohio State late in the fourth quarter with Ohio State having only eight players on the field.
7. September 8, 2018 – Penn State 51 @ Pitt 6 – in what would be Pitt’s worst-loss ever at Heinz Field, and it would come against their bitter rival Penn State. Pitt was still in the ballgame at halftime, trailing 14-6. The 45-point loss would be Pitt’s worst defeat since a 60-6 loss to Notre Dame in 1996. It was the worst-home loss since Notre Dame beat Pitt 56-7 in 1971. The 45-point margin was the worst loss to Penn State since a 65-9 loss to Penn State in 1968.
6. September 1, 2012 – Youngstown State 31 Pitt 17. Division 1-AA Youngstown State beats Pitt at Heinz Field. This was the season opener and the start of the Paul Chryst era and it also turned out to be Pitt’s first-ever loss to a lower-division team. It’s one thing to lose to Penn State or Ohio State. It’s entirely another matter to lose to Youngstown State.
5. September 8, 2001 – USF 35 Pitt 26 – USF was in their first year as a full FBS member and a 22-point underdog against Pitt when they visited Heinz Field back in 2001. USF led at halftime 14-7 and would score touchdowns on their first two possessions of the second half to take a 28-7 lead. The Bulls would gain 443 yards of offense on the day and sacked Pitt quarterback David Priestly six times and held Pitt’s running attack to 12 yards on the afternoon. At the time, it was arguably the most stunning loss in Pitt football history.
4. January 2, 2015 – Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl – Leave it to Pitt to lose in historic fashion. With less than 11 minutes left in the game, Houston trailed Pitt by 25 points, 31-6. The game should be over, right? But no, Pitt happens. The Cougars would end up winning 35-34 as Pitt blew the largest fourth-quarter lead ever in the history of college football bowl games and it happened in less than 11 minutes of game time! The Cougars had 292 yards of offense …. in the fourth quarter. The term Pitting grows in lexicon stature as a result as Pitt takes Pitting to new depths.
3. October 28, 2014 – Georgia Tech 56 Pitt 28 – Pitt lost four fumbles in their first six plays, and lost five fumbles on their first five possessions. I kid you not, on Homecoming no less, and Georgia Tech took advantage and scored 28 first-quarter points. Georgia Tech set a record for most points scored by an opponent at Heinz Field with 56 and set a Heinz Field rushing record rushing with 465 yards. The following was written in an sbnation.com article about the game, “Outstanding ineptitude, thy name is Pitt.”
Even deadspin.com chimed in and when the title of the article is: “The Pitt Panthers Are Desecrating The Game Of Football.” That’s not good.
2. September 16, 2017 – Oklahoma State 59 @ Pitt 21 – The Cowboys scored on each of their first seven possessions and had 516 yards of offense…by halftime and led Pitt 49-14. Oklahoma State would finish with 676 yards of total offense, 572 of that through the air and the Cowboys had four 100-yard receivers in the game.
In a game that was televised by ESPN and during the second half non-game action shots would become the lasting images of this debacle. Images of fans sleeping in the stands at Heinz Field with no one around them for rows in each direction and then displayed on the Heinz Field scoreboard: Those students that stay throughout the game will get a free beverage. It wasn’t worth it. It was Pitt’s worst loss ever at Heinz Field, till the following season against Penn State.
Why is this game number two on the list instead of Penn State’s drubbing of Pitt in 2018? Unlike the Pitt-Penn State game of 2018 this game was no longer competitive well before halftime. Everyone knew it was over and all that was left was for the television cameras to show fans asleep in the stands during the second half of the game.
Drum roll please. The most ignominious and memorable defeat in Pitt football history is:
1. November 29, 1981 – Penn State 48 #1 Pitt 14 – Just say the score and Pitt fans know it all too well. The 34-point defeat is still, to this day, nearly 38 years later, the largest margin of defeat for a number one-ranked team ever home or away, and it happened at Pitt Stadium. What made it even harder to take was that Pitt led 14-0 and was driving for another touchdown and Pitt’s all-time greatest quarterback Dan Marino was intercepted in the end zone and that changed the momentum of the game and Pitt’s national championship hopes would begin to slip away. Talk about a momentum swing. It unleashed a Penn State tsunami scoring 48 straight unanswered points against the top-ranked Panthers.
Why is this the choice as the most ignominious loss in Pitt history? Even though it was against a quality opponent, Pitt’s 1981 team was ranked number one in the nation and had far too much talent to lose at home – to their arch-rival – on the final game of the regular season – with a national championship on the line – by five touchdowns. This game had so much riding on it and how it turned out, the score is forever remembered by Pitt fans in infamy.
Interestingly, a Pitt loss has made this list in four of the past five seasons. One never knows what the 2019 football season might bring.
John Baranowski is a sports historian and contributor to newspapers, sports publications and sports websites. This and other articles written by him can be found on his blog: https://johnbaranowski.wordpress.com/.