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Fumbles, poor tackling cost Pitt in 56-28 loss to Georgia Tech

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PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh's mistakes kept piling up, each one more inexplicable than the last.

Chad Voytik diving for a first down. James Conner inches from the end zone. Tyler Boyd stretching for an extra yard. Each of them effort plays by the three most vital parts of the Panther offense. Each of them ending with the same result: a Georgia Tech defender on top of the ball and the Yellow Jackets' offense sprinting onto the field.

Five times in the first quarter the Panthers fumbled. Five times Georgia Tech recovered, converting four of the recoveries into touchdowns in a surprisingly easy 56-28 win on Saturday. Pitt's five fumbles lost in the opening 15 minutes tied an FBS record.

"Kind of a fluke I guess having that many fumbles in a row," Conner said. "That's part of the game though."

One that further muddled an already murky ACC Coastal Division. Pitt's chance to create a bit of separation ended before it began. The Panthers (4-4, 2-2) trailed by 28-0 barely 5 minutes in and never drew closer than 14 the rest of the way.

"Now we've dug ourselves a hole early in the game and in the season now," Pitt safety Ray Vinopal said. "So we're going to have to get it going here. One more loss puts us out of ACC contention."

Probably not in a division where six of the seven teams have two losses and the other — Duke — plays in Pittsburgh next week.

Still, any momentum the Panthers generated after a rousing 21-16 win over Virginia Tech nine days ago quickly vanished. Athletic director Steve Pederson tried to give the program an emotional jolt on Friday, announcing that the team would play with the old school "Pitt" script logo on its helmets, a nod to the school's storied past.

The lift never happened. Not even close.

Conner shook off a twisted right knee to rush for 119 yards and three scores to go over 1,000 yards on the season. The moment that will stick with him, however, is the one yard he didn't get.

Trailing by a touchdown early in the first quarter, Conner appeared ready to tie the game when he took a handoff from Voytik and darted for the end zone 75 yards away. He only made it 74. Conner was about to cross the goal line when Georgia Tech's D.J. White punched the ball free. It rolled out of the end zone for a touchback. Three plays later the Yellow Jackets were up 14-0 after a 79-yard pass from Justin Thomas to Charles Perkins.

PHOTO: Georgia Tech running back Broderick Snoddy (22) gets past Pittsburgh defensive lineman David Durham (44) in the first quarter of an NCAA football game, Saturday, Oct. 25, 2014, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
Georgia Tech running back Broderick Snoddy (22) gets past Pittsburgh defensive lineman David Durham (44) in the first quarter of an NCAA football game, Saturday, Oct. 25, 2014, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Conner admitted he took a peek at the scoreboard at the end of the longest run of his career.

"Looked like everybody was behind me so I thought I had it," he said. "Next time I'll sprint to the back of the end zone. It's a lesson learned."

A painful one.

Broderick Snoddy ran for 82 yards and three touchdowns and Georgia Tech (6-2, 3-2 ACC) snapped a two-game losing streak as its triple-option offense crushed the nation's fourth-ranked defense. Pitt came in allowing 280 yards per game. The Yellow Jackets more than doubled that, racking up 612 yards, including 465 on the ground.

"Just guys not in the spots they were in all week in practice," Vinopal said. "That's how you get beat and we got beat bad."

Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson challenged his defense after the Yellow Jackets gave up 579 yards in a loss to North Carolina last week, saying his team needed to become more aggressive.

Pitt did its part to help during a comical opening 10 minutes, finding increasingly elaborate ways to give the Yellow Jackets the ball.

Snoddy's 34-yard sprint after a Boyd fumble made it 28-0 with 9:44 left in the first quarter.

The Pitt student section grew so exasperated it chanted "Hold That Ball" and sarcastically roared when the Panthers executed a play without turning it over. It didn't last as Voytik botched a snap on the Panthers' fifth possession and the Yellow Jackets fell on it once again, giving them five fumble recoveries in the first quarter, or four more than they had the entire season coming in.

The Panthers regrouped to draw within 28-14 behind a pair of short scoring runs by Conner. Pitt had a chance to draw closer late in the second quarter when it drove to the Georgia Tech 43. Facing fourth-and-3, coach Paul Chryst opted to punt.

"I didn't want to give them a short field and it turns into a three-score game," Chryst said.

It did anyway.

The Yellow Jackets missed a field goal to end the half but momentum had shifted. Georgia Tech opened the second half with a 75-yard touchdown drive, the final 28 coming on Snoddy's third score that made it 35-14.

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