Fort Worth, TX (SportsNetwork.com) - Greg Ward Jr.'s third touchdown pass of the fourth quarter, a 25-yard strike to Deontay Greenberry with 59 seconds remaining, completed an unbelievable comeback that lifted Houston to a 35-34 victory over Pittsburgh in the Armed Forces Bowl.
Greenberry was also on the other end of Ward's successful 2-point conversion try that brought the Cougars all the way back from a 34-13 deficit with under four minutes left.
Houston (8-5), which trailed 31-6 with 11 minutes to play, scored 29 fourth- quarter points and recovered a pair of onside kicks, the last leading to Greenberry's second touchdown catch of the day.
The 25-point deficit was the largest overcome by a winning team in the fourth quarter in bowl history.
"It was a miracle," said Cougars interim head coach David Gibbs. "We'll gladly accept a miracle."
Ward finished 15-of-24 for 274 yards and added 92 on the ground. Greenberry finished with 85 yards on four receptions, while Kenneth Farrow put up 103 rushing yards and two touchdowns to help the Cougars prevail in this matchup of teams being led by substitute coaches.
Gibbs, Houston's defensive coordinator, led the team for the bowl game after Tony Levine was fired on Dec. 8. Offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph directed Pittsburgh (6-7), which had head coach Paul Chryst depart for the same position at alma mater Wisconsin.
James Connor rushed for 90 yards and two touchdowns on 21 attempts for the Panthers, with Tyler Boyd amassing 112 receiving yards on nine catches in the stunning loss.
Ward engineered a 6-play, 83-yard drive he finished with a seemingly innocuous 8-yard touchdown toss to Greenberry that brought Houston within 34-20 with 3:41 left to play, but the score loomed far larger when Tyler White pounced on Ty Cummings' onside kick to give the Cougars back the ball near midfield.
Two straight completions from Ward to Markeith Ambles had Houston back in scoring range, and Demarcus Ayers came down with Ward's 29-yard heave into the end zone on 4th-and-13 shortly afterward to suddenly cut the margin to seven points with 1:58 remaining.
Cummings' second onside try again went into the hands of a Houston player, with Farrow falling on the ball at the Cougars' 43-yard line. Ward and Greenberry teamed up for a 38-yard gain on the next play, then combined for a 25-yard touchdown on a 3rd-and-16 situation to put Houston just a point away from a tie and possible overtime.
Gibbs would have none of it, however, and his decision to go for two paid off when Ward found an open Greenberry in the back of the end zone for a 35-34 Cougars' edge.
"The truth is our first bowl practice, we made a decision that day at practice that if it came down to the end of the game, we were going for two no matter what," Gibbs stated. "We started practicing the 2-point play the very first practice. So we've probably run that play, I don't know -- 25, 30 times in practice."
A pass interference penalty that negated a fourth down stop for Houston on the ensuing possession kept the Panthers alive. Boyd dropped a deep pass from Chad Voytik that would have placed Pittsburgh deep in Cougars' territory, however, and Voytik's next attempt fell incomplete to turn the ball over on downs with two seconds left.
"We had some unfortunate bounces," said Panthers defensive back Ray Vinopal. "I don't know how many times I've seen back-to-back onside kicks recovered."
Voytik ended 18-of-35 for 222 yards and a touchdown, and finished the second quarter strong to help the Panthers build a 17-6 lead at halftime.
He completed three straight passes in front of Isaac Bennett's 12-yard run that gave Pittsburgh a 14-6 edge 1:27 prior to the intermission.
After the Panthers got the ball back on a punt with 23 seconds left, the sophomore quarterback connected with Kevin Weatherspoon for gains of 13 and 16 yards to position Chris Blewitt to knock through a career-long 52-yard field goal on the half's final play.
Pittsburgh then put up points on its first three drives of the second half to temporarily turn the contest into a rout.
Voytik skillfully directed a 13-play, 91-yard series in which he rushed three times for 39 yards and completed the trek with a 16-yard touchdown delivery to J.P. Holtz. Following a Houston punt, Voytik hit on 5-of-6 throws during a sequence that ended with Conner's 5-yard run into the end zone that put the Panthers up 31-6 with 13:58 remaining.
Ward's 31-yard run and Greenberry's 14-yard grab on 3rd-and-14 extended the subsequent possession, which Farrow culminated with an 8-yard touchdown that provided the Cougars with some needed momentum.
Pittsburgh was then able to take nearly 4 1/2 minutes off the clock before Blewitt blasted a 29-yard field goal for a 34-13 advantage with 6:14 to go.
Both teams put together 15-play drives that resulted in their initial points, with the Panthers marching 92 yards to strike first and Houston countering with a 76-yard series later on.
Pitt's mammoth trek, which Conner capped with a 1-yard run less than a minute into the second quarter, featured three third-down conversions -- including Weatherspoon's 17-yard catch on 3rd-and-12 and Voytik's 3-yard scramble in the red zone.
Ward's 16-yard run on 3rd-and-16 and a 20-yard scamper helped set up Farrow's 2-yard plunge with 5:40 remaining in the first half. Kyle Bullard's point- after try was blocked by Justin Moody, however, to keep the Panthers in front.
Texas Tech had owned the largest fourth-quarter comeback in a bowl game, rallying from 24 points down to earn a 44-41 overtime win over Minnesota in the 2006 Insight Bowl ... The Cougars gained 292 of their 486 total yards in the fourth quarter, with Ward going 11-of-12 for 233 yards ... Ward, a converted wide receiver, went 6-2 after replacing John O'Korn as Houston's starting quarterback in October ... The Cougars were making their fourth appearance in the Fort Worth/Armed Forces Bowl and are now 2-2 in the game ... Boyd has recorded 163 catches through his first two seasons, surpassing NFL star Larry Fitzgerald's 161 for the most in Pittsburgh history over that span.