EAST HARTFORD, Conn. – Connecticut once again failed to score a second-half touchdown. This time, the Huskies didn't need one.
Lyle McCombs ran for 120 yards and one of the Huskies' three first-half TDs and Connecticut beat Pittsburgh 24-17 on Friday night for its first conference win after four losses.
Chandler Whitmer threw for 213 yards and a score for the Huskies (4-6, 1-4 Big East), and Nick Williams returned a punt 80 yards for a touchdown.
"This is big for us," said tight end Ryan Griffin, who had eight catches for 84 yards and the other touchdown. "This keeps us bowl eligible. We've just got to win out these last two, which is going to be tough. But now we know we can do it."
Tino Sunseri threw for 302 yards and two touchdowns for Pitt (4-6, 1-4), which fell short in its attempt to overcome a 24-0 halftime deficit. The Panthers, like UConn, must now win out to get to a bowl game.
McCombs, who ran for more than 1,100 yards and seven touchdowns as a freshman, had just 547 yards and four scores coming into the game. He carried the ball 29 times in this one.
The Huskies held Pitt running back Ray Graham to 41 yards on 15 carries after he rushed for 172 against Notre Dame a week ago in an overtime loss.
"It's been a roller coaster this season," Graham said. "It's a hurtful feeling in that locker room. It's quiet."
UConn scored on its first possession when Whitmer hit Griffin with a 4-yard pass to cap an 11-play, 75-yard march. A staunch UConn defense, ranked ninth nationally, forced Pitt to punt on its first possession, setting the tone for the rest of the half. UConn extended the lead to 10-0 a little over 3 minutes later on Chad Christen's 29-yard field. The Huskies opened a 17-0 lead on Williams' punt return midway through the second quarter.
McCombs made it 24-0 on a 2-yard plunge, giving the Huskies their first rushing touchdown since a Sept. 29 win over Buffalo.
While the UConn offense rolled in the first half, the Huskies' defense, led by linebacker Sio Moore pressured Sunseri throughout the first 30 and blanketed the Pitt receivers, forcing Sunseri to scramble or throw out of bounds. It also didn't help that several of Sunseri's passes were dropped.
The Panthers didn't score until Kevin Harper's 42-yard field goal in the third quarter. Harper's 44-yard attempt in the first half hit the right upright.
But they opened the fourth quarter by going 72 yards in just six plays. Back-to-back passes from Sunseri to Devin Street picked up 46 yards and the Pitt quarterback then found Drew Carswell in the left flat for an 11-yard touchdown strike.
UConn had a chance to put the game away after a 44-yard run set the Huskies up at the Pittsburgh 14. But Whitmer threw an interception in the end zone to end the threat.
Sunseri took over and drove the Panthers 80 yards in just over 2 minutes, capped by an 18-yard touchdown pass to Mike Shanahan with 2:46 left.
But the Panthers never got the ball back. Whitmer hit Shakim Philips for a key 17-yard completion on a third-and-9 on UConn's next drive and the Huskies ran out the clock.
"We've been in four games this year when we've lost by seven points or less," said UConn coach Paul Pasqualoni. "We've had our share of those kinds of games. I told the kids it's great to play your best football in November."
The Panthers were coming off a heartbreaking triple-overtime loss to Notre Dame last week, a game in which they squandered a 14-point fourth-quarter lead and missed a 33-yard field goal attempt in the second overtime period that would have won the game.
The Huskies have been outscored 76-3 in the second half of their five Big East games, but Moore said they never thought this one was going to slip away.
"The feeling I had was, 'I don't care what happens, I'm not leaving off this field without a win," said Moore, who had six tackles and two sacks. That's what everyone felt like on the defensive side of the ball and that's what we did."
UConn has games against No. 11 Louisville and Cincinnati remaining.
Pittsburgh needs wins over Rutgers and USF to finish .500 and become eligible for a fifth consecutive bowl bid.