PITTSBURGH — Virginia Tech's roster of healthy running backs is dwindling.
So are the Hokies' chances of being a factor in the ACC Coastal Division.
Slow at the start and spent at the finish, Virginia Tech fell to Pittsburgh 21-16 on Thursday night in what amounted to an elimination game in a chaotic division race.
"I thought that we came in here and made a lot of plays, but we sure missed a lot of plays," Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer said. "We also had some opportunities that we didn't capitalize on, and those come back to get you."
Forced to plumb the bottom of the depth chart at running back with Shai McKenzie, Marshawn Williams and Trey Edmunds all out with injury, Virginia Tech could do little on the ground. The Hokies ran for 26 yards, the longest run of the night Sam Rogers' 9-yard burst.
Virginia Tech (4-3, 1-2) trailed by 12 in the fourth quarter but had the ball and a chance to take the lead in the final minutes. Michael Brewer's fourth-down pass to Cam Phillips sailed high and the Panthers ran out the clock.
Brewer completed 26 of 45 for 265 yards, including a 14-yard touchdown pass to Phillips with 4:52 remaining that drew the Hokies within five but Virginia Tech couldn't finish off the comeback.
"It's tough when you can't run the ball, because it allows the defense to pin their ears back and rush the passer more and drop people into coverage," Brewer said. "So, it was tough that we couldn't get the run game going, but in the end we just didn't make enough plays."
Chad Voytik ran for a career-high 118 yards and threw a 53-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Boyd to help Pitt (4-3, 2-1) end a three-game losing streak. James Conner ran for 85 yards and two scores for the Panthers.
"We needed it bad," Voytik said. "I got emotional after the game because I knew how big it was. Just how hard our guys have worked. The stage was big and we come out and performed."
Pitt came in reeling, having seen its promising 3-0 start evaporate into puzzling losses to Iowa, Akron and Virginia. Their season likely on the line, the Panthers responded with a dominant — if not exactly crisp — performance.
Relying heavily on its two sophomore stars and the nation's fourth-ranked defense, Pitt took a 14-6 halftime lead. Voytik found Boyd down the seam on the Panthers' second possession and the Boyd did the rest, catching it at the Virginia Tech 30 and sidestepping two defenders on his way to a 53-yard touchdown, Pitt's longest pass play of the season.
Virginia Tech didn't pick up a first down until there were 6 minutes left in the half as Brewer struggled to find any rhythm. He overthrew some receivers and short-hopped passes to others.
"We were backed up early and got into obvious pass situations, so they could drop back and make it tougher on us," Brewer said.
Only Pitt miscues kept Virginia Tech close. Twice the Panthers had the ball inside the Hokies 35 only to come away with no points. Still, Conner bolted in from 15 yards out to make it 14-3 before Virginia Tech pulled within eight on Joey Slye's second field goal. The kick came at the end of an ugly sequence that included Pitt having an interception called back due to a late hit on Brewer and Phillips dropping the ball innocently on the turf while attempting to run it in.
The Hokies made it 14-9 early in the second half before the Panthers appeared to put it away in the fourth quarter when they stopped Virginia Tech on fourth down and Voytik followed by darting 49 yards on a read-option and Conner bulled his way in from 13 yards out.
Pitt missed a chance to take a two touchdown-lead when the Hokies blocked Chris Blewitt's field goal attempt and the brief appearance of "Beamer Ball" seemed to give Virginia Tech life.
Virginia Tech responded with a brisk 80-yard drive, with Brewer hitting Phillips to cut it to five. Pitt couldn't run out the clock but the Hokies drove to midfield before stalling. Brewer's final pass was off target and Phillips absorbed a punishing blow as it feel incomplete, leaving Virginia Tech at least two games back in the division race with five games to go.
"You never know what's going to happen, especially on our side, because things have been shaken up early," Brewer said. "So, we just have to keep our heads down and move forward."