Pitt Football’s Home Games of the Decades

With the last year of this decade upon us and another football season rapidly approaching (although to college football fans, not rapidly enough), this gives us an opportunity to consider which Pitt home game at Heinz Field is the reigning home game of the decade going into 2019. While we’re at it, what home games were the game of the decade for the past four decades as well? Working in chronological order, we’ll begin with the ‘70s.

1975 Pitt 34 Notre Dame 20. Those in the sellout crowd of 56,480 that hoped to see Pitt finally snap an 11-year losing streak to the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame not only had their wish granted but they got to see history made as well.

It was 6-3 Pitt versus ninth-ranked Notre Dame with a 7-2 record. On Pitt’s first drive, Tony Dorsett broke off a 57-yard run foreshadowing what the Fighting Irish defense would face all afternoon. Later with Pitt trailing 10-7 in the first quarter, Dorsett sprinted 71 yards to the end zone to give the Panthers a 14-10 lead. At this point, Dorsett had rushed for 151 yards – in four carries!

The teams exchanged field goals and Dorsett took a pass from quarterback Matt Cavanaugh and went 49 yards for another Panther touchdown to go up 24-13 at the half. Dorsett would have three receptions for 74 yards on the day. After a Carson Long field goal in third quarter, Notre Dame’s Rusty Slager would hit Ken McAfee with a touchdown pass to cut Pitt’s lead to seven, 27-20. Pitt would add a final touchdown in the fourth quarter to close out the scoring.

Dorsett’s 303 yards rushing against Notre Dame (on just 23 carries) is still the most rushing yards gained by an opponent against Notre Dame 43 seasons later. This was not just the game of the decade. Like Johnny Miller’s 63 at the final round of the U.S. Open at Oakmont in 1973 and Secretariat at the Belmont that same year, this was a performance of a lifetime.

Honorable Mention: 1970 Pitt 36 West Virginia 35. This is one game you may hear Pitt fans say, “I was there,” which should be followed up with, “but did you stay till the end?” In one of the legendary games of the Backyard Brawl, Pitt trailed at halftime 35-8. In what was truly a tale of two halves, Pitt ran 67 plays in the second half and did not punt in the third or fourth quarter and Pitt’s defense shut out the Mountaineers allowing for the legendary comeback. Pitt quarterback Dave Halvern threw a 6-yard touchdown pass to Leslie Block with just 27 seconds left in the game.

Many fans had left the Pitt-West Virginia game as it was so one-sided in the first half that many left early and did not see the comeback with some fans scrambling back to Pitt Stadium when they heard Pitt was coming back. It taught Mountaineers head coach Bobby Bowden to never sit on a lead again.

The ‘80s: 1982 Pitt 16 West Virginia 13. In front of a crowd of 57,251, number one-ranked Pitt came back from a 13-0 fourth-quarter deficit to defeat fourteenth-ranked West Virginia 16-13. Early in the fourth quarter, West Virginia linebacker Darryl Talley blocked a Pitt punt and recovered it in the end zone to extend West Virginia’s lead to 13-0 in what was a defensive slugfest to that point. Pitt running back Bryan Thomas would get Pitt on the board with a three-yard touchdown run and with 6:04 to play Dan Short recovered a missed snap by Mountaineer quarterback Jeff Hostetler. With under four minutes to play, Pitt quarterback Dan Marino threw a six-yard touchdown pass to Julius Dawkins and the extra point gave Pitt a 14-13 lead. A subsequent safety by Bill Maas of Mountaineers quarterback Jeff Hostetler increased the lead to 16-13.  With seven seconds left in the contest and a chance to tie the game, West Virginia kicker Paul Woodside was just short on a 52-yard field goal attempt. It was Woodside’s first miss after converting on 15 consecutive field goal attempts.

Honorable mention: 1989 Pitt 30 Syracuse 23. This could be Pitt’s version of the Marvin Hagler-Tommy Hearns fight with each team trading bombs right from the start. On Syracuse’s first play of the game, wide receiver Rob Carpenter hit a wide-open Rob Moore for a 69-yard touchdown pass off a reverse. On Pitt’s first play from scrimmage, quarterback Alex Van Pelt hit Henry Tuten for a 61-yard touchdown pass and the score was 6-6 just 32 seconds into the game!

Syracuse came into the game ranked 13th and Pitt was ranked 14th and the first quarter would end Pitt leading 16-13. Pitt led 23-13 at the half and opened the second half with a 70-yard drive capped by one of Derrick Lewis’ three touchdown runs on the day. Syracuse would answer back scoring the next 10 points and on their final possession, the game ended on a Louis Riddick interception inside Pitt’s 10-yard line as time ran out. It was only the third loss for the Orangemen in their last 27 games and snapped Pitt’s five-game losing streak to Syracuse.

The ‘90s: 1999 Pitt 37 Notre Dame 27: Could it be anything other than the final game ever at Pitt Stadium on November 13, 1999, in which Pitt defeated Notre Dame 37-27 before 60,190 fans? Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Bob Smizik wrote, “It was an epic encounter between Pitt and Notre Dame and it was merely one of the greatest games played in the 74-year-old facility.”

Pitt quarterback John Turman threw the first of his two touchdowns on the day to Antonio Bryant in the first quarter to give Pitt a 7-0 lead. The Fighting Irish would battle back after each Pitt score and saw the game tied at 10 and 17-all in the third quarter. Following a Pitt field goal, Turman hit Bryant for a 28-yard touchdown pass to give Pitt a 10-point lead. Notre Dame would answer with a touchdown to make it 27-24 at the end of the third quarter. Both teams traded field goals with the score 30-27 midway in the fourth quarter.

On Notre Dame’s next possession Pitt’s safety Ramon Walker struck Notre Dame wideout Joey Getherall so hard the ball popped into the air and linebacker Scott McCurley made the interception. Pitt running back Kevin Barlow would then carry the ball nine times in a 10-play drive and score his second touchdown of the game on a two-yard touchdown run to make it 37-27 with 1:41 left in the game.  Notre Dame had won the previous eight games against the Panthers but not on this day. This was Pitt’s day.

Honorable mention: 1997 Pitt 21 Miami 17. On a Thursday night in front of an ESPN audience, Miami opened the scoring just 1:05 into the game on a swing pass to Carlo Joseph that turned into a 57-yard touchdown pass. Pitt quarterback Pete Gonzalez would bring Pitt back throwing two touchdown passes in the game and accounting for 250 yards of offense, 63 of those on the ground. With Pitt clinging to a four-point lead, the Hurricanes got to Pitt’s 34-yard line with 1:25 left and on fourth-and-five, Ryan Clement’s pass was intercepted by John Jenkins. It was the second interception for Pitt’s defense that night to go with four sacks, three turnovers and holding Miami to 76 yards rushing. This game made a lot of Pitt fans believers of first-year head coach Walt Harris as it was Pitt’s first win over Miami since 1976 ending an eight-game losing streak. Anytime goalposts are torn down, it must have been quite a game.

The ‘00s: 2009 Cincinnati. 45-44. That’s all you need to see and you know which game I’m referring to. The game was for the Big East Conference crown and a trip to the Sugar Bowl. No game at Heinz Field before or since had as much at stake as this one. A light, steady snowfall fell upon a packed Heinz Field as 63,387 in attendance witnessed what turned out to be a game for the ages.

Pitt led comfortably 31-10 late in the second quarter but made the mistake of kicking it to Cincinnati’s Mardy Gilyard. Gilyard would go 99 yards to bring Cincinnati within 14 points going into halftime and the game’s momentum now belonged to the Bearcats. In a brilliant individual performance, Gilyard had 256 return yards on the day to go along with 118 yards receiving. Pitt running back Dion Lewis did all he could in a losing-effort carrying the football 47 times for 194 and three touchdowns.

Lewis’ third touchdown of the game gave Pitt a 44-38 lead against the fifth-ranked Bearcats but the ensuing extra point hold was dropped which gave Cincinnati a chance. Cincinnati quarterback Tony Pike needed only 64 seconds to tie the game and the Bearcats made the extra point and were Big East Conference champions.

Honorable mention: 2003 Pitt 31 Virginia Tech 28. In front of 66,207 fans, Pitt quarterback Rod Rutherford completed 24 of 31 passes for 303 yards and two touchdowns as Pitt wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald caught eight of those passes for 108 yards and a touchdown. With 54 seconds remaining in the game, Pitt running back Lousaka Polite scored from the two-yard line for the game-winning score over the fifth-ranked Hokies. It was Pitt’s first win over a top-five team at home since beating fourth-ranked Notre Dame in 1987.

A second honorable mention: 2007 Navy 48 Pitt 45 2OT. This one was the longest game ever played at Heinz Field with both teams combining for 915 yards in total offense in which no team led by more than seven points throughout the contest. Navy led by a field goal in the second overtime and rather than kick a chip-shot field goal to tie the game and force another overtime, Pitt Head Coach Dave Wannstedt elected to go for the win. Instead of giving the ball to LeSean McCoy who led all rushers with 165 yards on 32 carries and three touchdowns, freshman quarterback Pat Bostick overthrew tight end Darrell Strong in the end zone.

The ’10s: 2016: Pitt 42 Penn State 39. It was a long-awaited renewal of an old rivalry and a game that was highly anticipated for years that lived up to its hype with Pitt hanging on to beat Penn State 42-39 in front of 69,983 fans, the largest crowd to ever watch a Pitt home game.

Pitt’s offensive line bludgeoned Penn State’s defense rushing for 341 yards with James Conner gaining 117 of those yards. Pitt led 28-7 in the second quarter and held on as Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley threw for 332 yards and Saquon Barkley would score five touchdowns.

A dropped McSorley pass for a touchdown off the fingertips of Penn State wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton was followed by a Ryan Lewis interception with just over a minute to play in the game to preserve Pitt’s lead for good.

Honorable mention: 2016: Pitt 76 Syracuse 61. This one must be listed as it was the highest scoring regulation game in FBS history with a score often greater than when these two schools meet on the hardwood, Pitt outscored 76-61 in a defensively-challenged contest in 2016. The two teams combined to score 47 points in the fourth quarter and 1,312 yards of offense in the game. That was with opposing defenses on the field. Seriously.

The 2019 season will open with a key Coastal Division match-up with Virginia and will be the first of seven Pitt home games in 2019. Will this season provide this decade’s game of the decade?

Photo courtesy of: University of Pittsburgh Athletic Department

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:


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