Sauls’ 5th FG Gives Pitt 37-35 Sun Bowl win over #18 UCLA

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By Ray Porter Jr.

EL PASO, TX_-For the Pitt Panthers football team, the 2022 Sun Bowl was a microcosm of their 2022 season: Start slow, struggle and finish strong. During the season, the Panthers had a 4-2 record before 2-straight losses dropped them to 4-4 before winning their final 4 games, including a 42-16 blowout of Miami.

Such was the case with Friday’s Sun Bowl as the Panthers overcame a slow start and a 14-point deficit to beat the #18th ranked UCLA Bruins 37-35 in the Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl. This was Pitt’s first Bowl win since beating Eastern Michigan in the 2019 Quick Lane Bowl. K Ben Saul’s 47-yard FG (and 5th of the game) proved to be the game-winner.

“What a football game. It’s been an outstanding week,” said Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi. “The hospitality, the people… first class job by the Sun Bowl people and first class by our football team.”

QB Nick Patti (20/41,224 yards, TD, INT, 72 rush yards) was another hero as he led the Panthers on that final drive to get into Field Goal range with no timeouts left. This took place after the Bruins took a 35-34 lead on RB TJ Harden’s 8-yard TD run with 34 seconds left.

The heavily perceived underdog Panthers weren’t expected to have a chance against the Bruins as eight of their players chose to opt out of the game, including ACC Defensive Player of the Year DT Calijah Cancey, touch-down leading RB Israel Abanikanda, and starting QB Kedon Slovis, who transferred to BYU. But the Panthers said Next Man Up and got the job done.

“We were down a few guys and just found a way to win a football game,” said Narduzzi. “One way or another, our guys found a way to get it done. I couldn’t be more proud of this team.”

RB Rodney Hammond Jr was the true star of the game as he filled in for Abanikanda and rushed 25 times for 93 yards. His two 2nd half TDs are what gave Pitt the opportunity to win. For his efforts, he was named the Sun Bowl MVP.

After taking an early 3-0 lead off Sauls’ first FG, UCLA responded when QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson (16/24, 271 yards, 2 TDs 3 INT) found WR Logan Loya for an 11-yard TD and a 7-3 lead. Sauls would add another FG to close the lead to 7-6, but the Bruins would add another TD as Thompson-Robinson would rush for a 1-yard TD to extend their lead to 14-6.

But the Panthers would then finally get into the end zone as Patti would lead them on a 9 play, 94-yard drive that ended with a 15-yard TD pass to WR Bub Means. A 2-point conversion would tie the game at 14. But Thompson-Robinson and UCLA would strike again before the end of the half as he would find WR Titus Mokiao-Atimalala for a 28-yard TD, and a 28-21 lead.

After falling behind 28-14 in the second half after a Patti pass was intercepted by CB Jaylin Davies and returned 52 yards for a TD, Pitt would begin to catch fire. The Panthers intercepted Thompson-Robinson twice and Hammond scored 2 TDs. After UCLA lost a fumble deep in their own territory, Sauls’ 3rd FG gave Pitt a 31-28 lead and his 4th FG extended it to 34-28.

But it wasn’t over. The Panthers would turn the ball over on downs. Then back came the Bruins as QB Ethan Garbers (who replaced Thompson-Robinson) led an 8-play, 72-yard drive that ended with Harden’s (11 carries, 111 yards) TD with 34 seconds left. But Pitt refused to give up as Patti led Pitt into FG range for Sauls’ game-winner.

“That will go down as one of the best two-minute drives. It was outstanding,” Narduzzi commented.

For Sauls’ efforts, he was named Special Teams MVP.

“He’s been phenomenal all season. You talk about adversity; he was beat out last year by a walk-on. …An absolute outstanding job from him,” remarked Narduzzi.

After knocking off a ranked team, the Panthers could finish the season in the Top 24 with a 9-4 record.

“A nine-win season, those are hard to come by,” said Narduzzi.

Notes: Sun Bowl Game attendance: 41,104.

Please email Ray at [email protected]

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