PITTSBURGH - Playing on the road against a Big East team and its veteran quarterback, the University of Toledo figured to need a near-perfect performance to compete against the Pittsburgh Panthers.
The Rockets and perfection, though, were hanging out in different zip codes yesterday.
UT gift-wrapped the Panthers' first two touchdowns and was guilty of four turnovers in a 45-3 loss to Pitt at Heinz Field.
Pitt owned a 17-0 lead with two minutes left in the first quarter despite having just 60 net yards of offense.
"We made way too many mistakes," said UT coach Tom Amstutz. "We didn't give our best effort today. Obviously, we didn't take care of the ball the way we had to. You have to make a good team like Pitt earn things."
The Rockets instead made things too easy for the Panthers right from the start.
Amstutz tried to create some early momentum for his 16-point underdogs after UT had advanced to its own 42-yard line on the opening possession. Punter Brett Kern lined up in a normal formation on fourth-and-one before a shift resulted in a direct snap to running back Richard Davis.
The snap from Hassan Adebesin was to one side and Davis failed to flag it down and could do no more than fall on the loose ball, giving Pitt possession at the UT 32.
Tyler Palko passed to Darrell Strong for 23 yards on the first play and then found Derek Kinder from nine yards out for a 7-0 lead.
"We had a play set that, no doubt in my mind, would have gotten a first down," Amstutz said. "We can't afford a bad snap when you're looking for a play that will give us momentum and get things going."
The scoreboard flipped to 14-0 less than 30 seconds later when UT's starting quarterback, Brandon Summers, threw a lazy screen pass from deep in his own territory - one of several UT penalties that seriously impacted field position set the Rockets back - and Gus Mustakas, a 6-foot-3, 265-pound defensive tackle, picked off the pass and hauled it nine yards into the end zone.
"The screens are a big part of [Toledo's] offensive attack and always have been," said Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt. "We did very little blitzing today because of that. That play was great recognition on Gus' part."
Summers returned for one more possession, but misfired badly on a pass. True freshman Aaron Opelt took over from there.
"He did some encouraging things," Amstutz said of Opelt. "But we can't have people fumbling and dropping touchdown passes. Aaron did his part; others have to do theirs."
Opelt passed for 92 yards, with several drops among his 15-of-30 performance, and ended up as UT's leading rusher with 56 yards.
It wasn't nearly enough as Pitt ran up a 374-230 advantage in total yards and committed just one turnover.
Panthers quarterback Tyler Palko made good on 12 of 15 passing attempts for 172 yards and two touchdowns. Pitt had 189 yards passing and 185 more on the ground.
The Panthers led 24-3 at halftime and pretty much moved the ball at will in the third quarter, scoring touchdowns on drives of 70, 24 (after a UT fumble by Davis) and 80 yards for a 45-3 lead.
"We didn't execute and we didn't play well," Amstutz said. "We've been behind early in games before and come back. But it's a matter of how you play and execute. That was disappointing."
About the only highlight for Toledo was a Pitt fumble returned 57 yards by Tyrrell Herbert to the Panther 3-yard line in the fourth quarter.
"I wanted [the touchdown] real bad," said Herbert, a Pittsburgh product who was one of three players from nearby Penn Hills High School to start on defense for Toledo. "When the ball popped out I picked it up and tried to score. I just didn't get there. It was sort of like the whole game. We battled and played to the end, but couldn't make anything happen."
Typical of UT's offensive frustration was that the Rockets gained zero yards on four plays after Herbert's return and failed to score.
"We had to punch that in," Opelt said. "It was a matter of executing and making plays. We just didn't play our best game."
The Rockets, now 2-3, were held without a first-half touchdown for the first time since a 2003 game at Ball State, a span of 33 games, and finished a game without a TD for the first time since a 49-0 loss at Ohio State on Sept. 12, 1998.
"We lost in triple-overtime to Iowa State and we lost pretty big here today," Amstutz said. "The score doesn't make one loss worse than another."
Contact Dave Hackenberg at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6398.39.49974 -111.5473