BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — As it turned out, Pittsburgh didn't need a full-time coach to handle Kentucky in the BBVA Compass Bowl.
The Wildcats' ineptitude on offense and special teams turned out to be all the Panthers really needed. UK, which was without suspended quarterback Mike Hartline, struggled to score early, and a pair of special teams gaffes set up the Panthers' first two touchdowns as Pitt cruised to a 27-10 win at Legion Field.
It was the worst bowl loss in 15 post-season appearances for Kentucky (6-7) and sealed the Cats' first losing season since 2005.
Kentucky Coach Joker Phillips said the team that showed up Saturday was different than the one he saw in practices leading up to the bowl.
"We didn't play with a lot of confidence or poise," he said. "We weren't the most physical team out there. The reason it hurts is because of what I thought we did during the monthlong preparations. I never had a sense that we would play the way we did. We even had a good week of preparation this week."
But it was Pitt, led by interim coach Phil Bennett, that looked like the more polished team.
The Panthers didn't do anything fancy, relying on a steady running game powered by tailbacks Dion Lewis (22 carries, 105 yards) and Ray Graham (17 carries, 90 yards). Quarterback Tino Sunseri went 9-for-19 passing for 96 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
Defensively, the Panthers kept pressure on Hartline's replacement, Morgan Newton, sacking him three times and limiting Kentucky's big plays.
"They came out and manhandled us, to be honest," UK senior tailback Derrick Locke said.
UK's defense did its part on its first series when Randall Burden picked off Sunseri at the UK 16-yard line.
Newton drove the Cats into scoring position but gave the ball back to the Panthers when he fumbled on a quarterback draw at the Pitt 34.
UK appeared to gain a second straight turnover when Burden recovered what looked to be a Sunseri lateral to Ray Graham, but replay officials overturned the original call and ruled it an incomplete pass.
Kentucky scored first on a 50-yard Craig McIntosh field goal with 5:10 remaining in the opening period. Pitt responded with a Dan Hutchins 21-yard field goal early in the second.
Things got a little chippy late in the first half. The Pitt offensive line jumped early, but play never completely stopped and UK linebacker Ridge Wilson took down Sunseri. That led to a brief fracas near midfield that resulted in both teams getting flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct.
Pitt got a 33-yard field goal from Hutchins on that possession to go ahead 6-3. Then, Adam Taglianetti broke through and blocked a Ryan Tydlacka punt to give the Panthers the ball at the UK 10. Sunseri scored on a 1-yard sneak with 34 seconds left in the second quarter, and Pitt led 13-3 going into halftime.
"That was the game," Locke said. "That killed us. The momentum and everything, that killed us."
UK botched a fake punt on its first series of the second half when Matt Roark was sacked at the Kentucky 35 as he dropped back to pass. That set up Sunseri's 13-yard TD pass to Brock DeCicco that gave the Panthers a 20-3 cushion with 10:47 left in the third.
"The guy got a good jump, and our operation wasn't as clean as we needed it to be," said Phillips about the blocked punt. "Special teams definitely hurt us today. We didn't execute the fake the way we had in practice. I'll write those down as turnovers. We have not won games when we turn the ball over."
Kentucky did put together a 14-play, 74-yard drive to close within 20-10 late in the third quarter. After a wide-open Roark dropped a potential TD pass in the end zone, Randall Cobb carried 19 yards on a reverse to the Pitt 1, and fullback Moncell Allen took it in on the next play with 41 seconds in the period.
UK forced Pitt into a fourth-and-4 from the Kentucky 35 on its next possession, but Sunseri hit Mike Cruz for a 14-yard gain, and Lewis' 2-yard TD run pushed it back to a 17-point lead (27-10) with 10:26 remaining.
Newton went the whole way at quarterback for Kentucky, finishing 21-for-36 for 211 yards.
As for the Panthers (8-5), Bennett and what was left of the coaching staff will move on to other jobs, and the school will begin its search for a new coach. But unlike Kentucky, Pitt was able to end the season on a positive note.
"If you could write a script, this would be it," Bennett said. "You had success on both sides of the ball and the kicking game was sound. I am very happy for these kids."
Phillips now must regroup heading into the off-season.
"We've got to try and take the next step," he said. "You can't come into every season talking about how young we are. We expect those guys to mature in a hurry, on and off the field. The way we take this program to the next level is we have to be a really good, disciplined team and a physical football team — similar to what we saw (in Pitt)."