Pittsburgh spent most of the year letting winnable games slip through its grasp.
Antwuan Reed wouldn't let another one get away.
The senior cornerback returned a fumble 20 yards for a touchdown with less than 3 minutes to play to lift the Panthers to a 33-20 victory over Syracuse on Saturday and end Pitt's roller coaster season on a decidedly up note.
"This is the way we've wanted to play all season," Reed said. "We picked a good time to come through with a game like this because we needed to get this win for the seniors."
And for defensive coordinator Keith Patterson, whose father died earlier in the week. Patterson's unit responded by forcing six Syracuse turnovers and consistently coming up with big stops whenever the Orange threatened.
"I'm sure my dad would have something to critique me on today," Patterson said, jokingly. "I'll miss that."
The Panthers (6-6, 4-3 Big East) became bowl eligible for the fourth straight year with the win, a victory in itself following an enigmatic fall in which Pitt — picked to finish second in the Big East in the preseason — would look dominant one week and dismal the next.
"''This bowl game is going to help us tremendously," first-year Pitt coach Todd Graham said. "We'll get a chance to go to a nice place, get our seventh win and go win a championship. We're not going just to go to a bowl game. I can tell you we are going to win."
Tino Sunseri threw for 259 yards and a score and Kevin Harper drilled four field goals while the Pitt defense forced the reeling Orange (5-7, 1-6) into mistake after mistake.
"I told our players that today was about imposing will," Graham said. "I think our guys did that."
Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib threw his 22nd touchdown pass of the season to tie a school record but also tossed two interceptions and fumbled twice as the Orange dropped their fifth straight.
"It was the same story of the season - turnovers and not taking advantage of things in the red zone at the right time, not being able to stop them at the proper time when we needed it," Syracuse coach Doug Marrone said. "Penalties, again, played a role. It was something we couldn't overcome. We had a chance and we had our opportunities."
The game may have been the final Big East contest for both schools, who announced in September they're heading to the ACC by 2014.
Both programs called the move — which could happen as early as next fall — a step up, though neither looked particularly ready during disappointing seasons.
The Panthers struggled adapting to Graham's up-tempo system while the Orange went into a free-fall following a 49-23 upset over West Virginia in late October.
"It's very tragic and we're going to have to see what we did wrong in order to get things right," Syracuse defensive Chandler Jones said.
The Panthers have been just as uneven. Pitt dropped four games — to West Virginia, Cincinnati, Notre Dame and Iowa — by a combined 11 points, many of them punctuated by second-half collapses. The most painful may have come last week when the Panthers squandered a 13-point halftime lead against the Mountaineers in the Backyard Brawl.
Graham took much of the blame for his team's inability to close out opponents. Pitt appeared to finally learn its lesson in the season finale.
The Orange trailed the entire game but pulled within 26-20 on Ross Krautman's 23-yard field goal with 4:40 to go. Syracuse forced a Pitt punt and took over at its own 6 with 3:03 remaining. Nassib hit Alec Lemon for a 12-yard gain to start the drive, but Pitt's defense delivered when senior linebacker Brandon Lindsey hit Nassib as he scrambled to his left. The ball floated into the air and Reed hauled it in before sprinting to the end zone.
"Brandon got a lot of pressure, and that helped me get that pick at the end," Reed said. "We really can't do anything in the back of the defense without having the guys up front putting on the pressure."
Pitt's Andrew Taglianetti picked off Nassib on the next Syracuse snap and the Panthers ran out the clock. The six turnovers by the Orange were the most produced by a Pitt defense since 2002.
Syracuse's miscues started on the opening kickoff. Harper's pooch kick was mishandled by Dorian Graham and the Panthers recovered at the Syracuse 22. Sunseri needed just one play to put Pitt on the board, hitting wide-open freshman tailback Isaac Bennett in the flat for a touchdown.
Less than 3 minutes later the lead was 10-0 after Lindsey intercepted Nassib at the Syracuse 46.
The Orange drew within 10-7 when Nassib found running back Antwon Bailey for a 26-yard touchdown pass, moving Nassib into a tie with former Syracuse stars Donovan McNabb and Don McPherson for the most scoring tosses in a season.
Syracuse outgained the Panthers 345-333 but couldn't get enough stops to climb out of the early hole. Nassib completed 23 of 32 passes for 225 yards while Bailey ran for 53 yards to become the 10th back in school history to top 1,000 yards in a season.
He won't get a chance to add to his total, however, as the Orange will head into winter workouts and a murky future.
"We beat some good teams and lost to some good teams and lost to teams we should have beat," Jones said. "We were close and we didn't clinch that moment."