PITTSBURGH — Given two weeks to recover from an embarrassingly one-sided home loss to Boise State, Virginia coach Mike London praised his players for spending extra time in the film room in hopes of breaking out of an early season funk in danger of becoming something far worse.
The effort was better on Saturday against Pittsburgh. The results not so much.
A late comeback bid stalled in the final seconds of a 26-19 loss that dropped the Cavaliers to 1-4. Eyeing a fresh start in the ACC after a forgettable nonconference schedule, Virginia fell two touchdowns behind early and couldn't quite catch the Panthers.
"We are very close," quarterback Matt Johns said. "It's just a matter of two or three plays."
Johns completed 17 of 33 passes for 209 with a touchdown and an interception. His 32-yard score to Canaan Severin pulled the Cavaliers within seven with 5:50 to go. Johns hit T.J. Thorpe for 32 yards on fourth-and-25 to put the ball at midfield in the final minute but Virginia's hopes of forcing overtime ended with four straight incompletions. The Cavaliers' road losing streak hit 12 straight when Johns' sideline throw to Thorpe on fourth-and-10 sailed wide.
"It is very frustrating, but that's just a testament to this team's character," Johns said. "The game was never over for us. We were fighting until the end."
Nate Peterman threw for 222 yards and two scores for Pitt. Qadree Ollison added one on the ground as the Panthers improved to 4-1 for the first time since 2009 and 2-0 in the ACC.
"Hopefully now we'll get some respect around the country and people will start noticing this is a different team than we had in the past," tight end Scott Orndoff said.
Pitt never trailed and appeared on the verge of an early blowout but needed a late stand to preserve its best start in six years.
"I think we've learned how to win," coach Pat Narduzzi said.
Narduzzi stressed he wouldn't allow his team to get to high after an emphatic road triumph at Virginia Tech last week. The Panthers certainly came out sharp, racing to a quick 17-3 lead. Peterman hit Orndoff for a 37-yard touchdown pass on game's fifth play, Chris James ripped off a 48-yard sprint to set up a 4-yard scoring run by Ollison later in the first quarter and the Panthers appeared to be in firm control.
Virginia struggled to gain any traction. Several times the Cavaliers had receivers running open deep in the secondary in the first half only to narrowly miss a momentum-turning play. The defense, surprisingly, produced a touchdown when Mike Moore hit Peterman. The ball popped up in the air and defensive end Kwontie Moore snagged it, taking the first turnover produced by Virginia all season and chugging 27 yards to the end zone to bring the Cavaliers within 17-10.
Pitt extended its lead back to 13 when Matt Galambos returned an interception 51 yards to set up Tyler Boyd's pretty 8-yard touchdown reception. When Johns was tackled in the end zone for a safety with 13:23 to go, the Panthers were up 26-13.
Virginia, however, didn't crumble. Johns led a 66-yard drive that ended with a lob from Johns to a wide-open Severin. The Cavaliers missed the extra point to stay seven points back but kept coming. The Panthers went three-and-out to give Virginia one last chance.
Two penalties pushed the Cavaliers back to fourth-and-25. Johns stood his ground and hit Thorpe down the left sideline. Things stalled, however, and none of Johns' final four throws were particularly close.
"It was tough to get into a rhythm," Johns said. "The drives were weird and then we would have a big play."
Just not enough to give the Cavaliers their first ACC road win since beating N.C. State on Nov. 3, 2012.
"We battled today but not good enough to win a football game," Virginia coach Mike London said. "Pitt is a good football team and you have to be able to capitalize and minimize your mistakes."
AP College Football Website: http://www.collegefootball.ap.org