EL PASO, Texas — Ben Sauls kicked five field goals, including a 47-yarder in the final seconds, and Pitt beat No. 18 UCLA 37-35 in a back-and-forth Sun Bowl on Friday.
The Panthers (9-4), playing without five starters who opted out of the game, took advantage of five UCLA turnovers, including four interceptions.
“We were down a few guys and just found a way to win a football game,” Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said. “One way or another, our guys found a way to get it done. I couldn’t be more proud of this team.”
Sauls, who was named the game’s Special Teams MVP, got his first start a year ago.
“Flip it a year from then and we’re kicking game-winners and going 5 for 5,” Sauls said. “You are what you tell yourself. And at the end of the day, I really think I’m a decent kicker.”
UCLA (9-4) grabbed a 35-34 lead on T.J. Harden’s 8-yard touchdown run with 34 seconds remaining. The late scoring drive started at the UCLA 25-yard line with less than two minutes left, and was keyed by a 34-yard run by Harden.
“I thought both teams played their hearts out,” UCLA coach Chip Kelly said. “It was a heck of a game.”
Pitt quarterback Nick Patti had completions of 18 yards to Jared Wayne and 17 yards to Bub Means on the ensuing drive. After spiking the ball to stop the clock, Patti scrambled for 11 yards to the UCLA 29-yard line. After another spike with 10 seconds left, Sauls came on to kick the game-winner.
Sophomore Rodney Hammond Jr., the game’s MVP, rushed for 89 yards and two TDs for the Panthers, who were without running back Israel Abanikanda, the nation’s leader in total TDs with 22.
The Bruins, who led 21-14 at halftime, played without star senior running back Zach Charbonnet. Harden finished with 111 yards on 11 carries.
UCLA was in control after Jaylin Davies intercepted Patti and returned it 52 yards to make it 28-14 with 8:45 to go in the third quarter. But Pitt responded with 20 straight points.
UCLA senior Dorian Thompson-Robinson, who was injured and didn’t return to the game after throwing an interception early in the fourth, threw for 271 yards on 16-of-24 passing. He had three interceptions, and Ethan Garbers also threw an interception on the game’s final play.
Pitt: The Panthers came into the game with a top-20 defense and a top-10 run defense, and that defense showed up in a big way, limiting UCLA to 141 yards rushing and forcing five Bruins turnovers.
UCLA: Turnovers and special teams hurt the Bruins. Thompson-Robinson threw three interceptions for only the second time this season – the other was a 48-45 loss to Southern California. UCLA had consecutive misplayed kickoff returns in the fourth quarter. The first was a fumbled kick that the Panthers turned into a field goal and a 31-28 lead. The second pinned the Bruins at their own 5-yard line and led to a punt and a Pitt field goal.
Pitt: Since Kedon Slovis transferred to BYU and Patti is a senior, the Panthers will look to either transfer Phil Jurkovec, a three-year starter from Boston College, or freshman Nate Yarnell as next year’s starter.
UCLA: The Bruins have to replace a lot of offense, but they brought in QB prospect Dante Moore from Detroit, a heralded recruit who originally committed to Oregon. He is expected to compete with transfer Collin Schlee from Kent State and Garbers. At running back, former Army standout Anthony Adkins has transferred to UCLA. He’ll compete with Harden and redshirt junior Keegan Jones, who had 20 yards on 7 carries.
Pitt: Begins 2023 season Sept. 2 at home against Wofford.
UCLA: Begins 2023 season Sept. 2 at home against Coastal Carolina.