PITTSBURGH Pitt quarterback Tyler Palko found himself down late in the game against a favored opponent for the second game in a row. Just as he got it done against Notre Dame, he got it done against West Virginia.
Palko, frustrated nearly all night by West Virginia's defense, completed four third-down passes on Pittsburgh's only sustained drive before scoring from the 2 late in the game to lead a 16-13 upset of the No. 21 Mountaineers on Thursday night.
Until Palko turned Darrelle Revis' interception of Rasheed Marshall's pass into Pitt's only touchdown, the sophomore quarterback had followed up a five-touchdown effort against Notre Dame with a mostly miserable game. He finished 14-of-38 for 165 yards and an interception.
But Palko was near perfect on the deciding 73-yard drive, hitting top receiver Greg Lee three times for 38 yards on third-down passes and tight end Erik Gill on a fourth. An 8-yard interference penalty on linebacker Adam Lehnortt in the end zone against Lee gave Pitt a first down at the West Virginia 2, and Palko scored on a rollout with 4:06 remaining to give Pitt its first lead.
It was a similar ending to Pitt's 41-38 upset of Notre Dame on Nov. 13, when Palko rallied the Panthers from a 35-31 deficit by leading two scoring drives in the final three minutes.
''That's what I kept hearing when they gave me the keys to this bus we need a quarterback who can win big games,'' Palko said, referring to Pitt's recent history of failing against its big rivals and ranked opponents. ''I expect to win big games.''
Until the late drive, the Pittsburgh-raised Marshall had outplayed a Pitt quarterback for the third straight season by directing a virtual one-man offense depleted by the suspension of top receiver Chris Henry and an injury to top rusher Kay-Jay Harris. Harris was held to 5 yards on three carries.
No doubt it will be a tough loss to West Virginia to accept, especially because Lee appeared to trap the ball on one of his third-down catches.
''It was a very disappointing night,'' West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez said. ''It's frustrating. It starts with the coaching, it starts with me. There were too many mistakes, too many penalties (89 yards to Pitt's 10). You can't beat yourself.''
Pitt's first victory over its biggest rival since 2001 effectively assured the Panthers (7-3, 4-2 in Big East) of a bowl bid possibly to the Gator and muddied West Virginia's bowl plans. The Mountaineers (8-3, 4-2) now might settle for the Insight Bowl after being the front-runner for the Big East's guaranteed BCS bowl bid before its 36-17 upset loss to Boston College two weeks ago.
''It's three losses for us,'' Marshall said. ''It feels like eight.''
If Palko hadn't found his game again in the fourth quarter, the Panthers appeared headed for their 10th loss in their last 13 in the East's second most-played major college rivalry to Army-Navy. They managed only three Josh Cummings field goals despite repeated scoring opportunities and Tim Murphy's 106 yards rushing.
''But our quarterback played that drive like I expect him to play the rest of his career,'' coach Walt Harris said. ''He made the plays. He did a wonderful job.''
Offensive tackle Rob Petitti echoed that, saying, ''Ever since I've been here, it seems we come up short (in the fourth quarter). Tyler Palko won't let us do that. He expects us to win, and he's just great to have in the huddle. He's a great leader.''
The 97th edition of the rivalry known as the Backyard Brawl was exactly that a physical, tightly played game filled with more big plays by the defenses than the offenses and mistakes aplenty by both teams.
West Virginia's special teams were dreadful again, just as they were in allowing two punt return touchdowns against Boston College. Brad Cooper missed two of four field goal tries before freshman Andy Good kicked a 31-yarder in the third quarter on his first attempt of the season, punter Phil Brady averaged only 29.3 yards on four punts and the Mountaineers twice drew penalties for running into Pitt punter Adam Graessle.
Even after all that, the Mountaineers still had a chance to win it until Marshall who ran for 104 yards and passed for 145 more threw incomplete on fourth and 6 from the Pitt 33 with 42 seconds remaining. The play before, wide receiver Dwayne Thompson just missed completing a flea flicker pass into the end zone to Marshall that H.B. Blades may have tipped.
''It was a play we put in this week,'' Marshall said. ''I had my hands on it and I felt it should have been a score.''
Pitt won its fifth in six games for Harris, whose 24-12 record over the last three seasons is the best by a Pitt coach over a three-year span since Jackie Sherrill went 33-3 from 1979-81.
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