PITTSBURGH (AP) — Brent Key held the ball given to him by his new boss and pointed to the gold “GT” logo on it, a symbol the former Georgia Tech lineman turned interim head coach tasked with holding his alma mater's struggling program together has held close for a quarter century and counting.
“That means everything to me,” Key said, tapping the embossed letters for effect.
Sure looked like it, for both Key and the group he's now suddenly in charge of leading.
Five days after Geoff Collins was fired four games into his fourth season, the Yellow Jackets responded with a stunning 26-21 victory over No. 24 Pittsburgh on Saturday night that was emphatic as it was improbable.
The defense harassed the defending ACC champions into three turnovers. Quarterback Jeff Sims threw for a touchdown and ran for another. Hassan Hall gashed the Panthers for 157 yards rushing.
And Key — who admittedly didn't know what to do during pregame after being promoted from offensive line coach to take over for Collins — was at ease in the middle of it all, creating a self-belief in his group that appeared non-existent during a 1-3 start that cost Collins and athletic director Todd Stansbury their jobs.
“After the week we had, we were able to block out all the noise, eliminate all the distractions and ... focus on moving forward,” Key said. "So happy for these kids. We believed in them. We knew they had it in them.”
Georgia Tech (2-3, 1-1 ACC) ended a nine-game losing streak to FBS opponents — the last five by a combined score of 210-20 — by frustrating the Panthers (3-2, 0-1) for long stretches and making the plays that mattered late.
Linebacker Charlie Thomas recovered a fumble and picked off Pitt quarterback Kedon Slovis to set up two of Gavin Stewart's four field goals. The inspired Yellow Jackets converted Pitt's three turnovers into 13 points, including a 21-yard touchdown pass from Sims to E.J. Jenkins with 10:30 to play that gave Georgia Tech a 19-7 lead.
The Panthers (3-2, 0-1) drew within five on a 26-yard touchdown pass from Slovis to Jaden Bradley with 1:57 to go but Hall raced 63 yards on the first play of Georgia Tech's ensuring possession and Sims later darted in from 18 yards out with 1:25 remaining to effectively seal it.
“I think Coach Key, he just came in, he knew that coach Collins being fired was a devastating time for us,” Sims said. “He came in and just kept our confidence up."
Tasked with trying to make something of his alma mater's season, Key promised the Yellow Jackets would “play the best brand of football we possibly can.”
At soggy and cold Acrisure Statdium, that meant relying heavily on a defense that never let Slovis or the Panthers get comfortable until they were too far behind.
The USC transfer completed a deceiving 26 of 45 passes for 305 yards with three touchdowns — two in the final 2 minutes — and an interception as Pitt's offense sputtered in the second half without junior running back Israel Abanikanda. The ACC's leading rusher exited late in the first half with an undisclosed injury and his replacement, Vincent Davis, fumbled twice in Pitt territory to set up Georgia Tech scores.
“Offense didn’t really get started until the last two series of the game,” Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi said. “If we would’ve done that (have any rhythm) the whole game, we would have had a chance ... Obviously I didn’t do a good enough job of getting them ready.”
Georgia Tech: Key, the first alum to lead the program since Bill Curry's tenure in the 1980s, made a pretty compelling opening statement that he should be considered for the full-time gig to replace Collins. What Georgia Tech lacked in aesthetics it made up for in grit while largely shutting down an offense that came in averaging 36 points a game.
Pitt: The Panthers began the season talking about repeating as the ACC champs and maybe mounting an insurgent run at the CFP. An overtime loss to Tennessee last month derailed the CFP dream — as remote as it was — and now they're playing catchup in the Coastal Division just one game into conference play.
Considering the carnage just above them in the polls, the Panthers appeared to have a chance to vault back into the top 20. Instead, they will drop out of the rankings for the first time since early November of last year after losing at home as a 22-point favorite.
Georgia Tech: Returns home next Saturday to face Duke. The Yellow Jackets beat the Blue Devils last October, their last victory over an FBS opponent before Saturday night.
Pitt: Finish a home-heavy start to the 2022 season when Virginia Tech visits next Saturday. The Panthers have won each of the last two meetings, including a 28-7 victory in Blacksburg last October.
More AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://twitter.com/ap_top25. Sign up for the AP’s college football newsletter: https://bit.ly/3pqZVaF