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PITTSBURGH (AP & PittsburghPanthers.com) - Isaac Bennett ran for a career-high 240 yards and three touchdowns as Pittsburgh held off Old Dominion 35-24 on Saturday night.
The Panthers (4-2) overcame an early 10-point deficit behind Bennett. Making his first start of the season, Bennett scored three times in a 12-minute span in the second quarter. Quarterback Tom Savage passed for 104 yards and a touchdown and also ran for a score as Pitt finally shook the Monarchs (4-3) late.
ODU quarterback Taylor Heinicke threw for 312 yards and two touchdowns but couldn't lead the Monarchs to their first win over a Bowl Championship Series opponent. ODU cut an 18-point deficit to four late in the third quarter, but Savage's 5-yard touchdown run gave Pitt enough cushion to survive.
It was hardly pretty on a night as the teams combined for 24 penalties and 221 penalty yards.
The Monarchs are in the midst of transitioning from the Football Championship Subdivision to the Football Bowl Subdivision. They'll be in Conference USA next fall, a leap the school insists it's ready to make even though the program didn't even exist five years ago.
For long stretches on Saturday, it certainly looked like it.
Pitt appeared to be firmly in control when Savage hit Manasseh Garner for a 21-yard touchdown that gave the Panthers a 28-10 lead. The Monarchs rallied behind Heinicke. The reigning Walter Payton Award winner - given annually to the best player in the FCS - found Blair Roberts for a 47-yard score to make it 28-17.
ODU executed a perfect onside kick, with kicker Jarod Brown falling on the ball after it rolled the required 10 yards. Five plays later Antonio Vaughn sprinted into the end zone to pull the Monarchs within 28-24 with 4:35 left in the third quarter.
The Panthers, however, steadied themselves behind Savage. The senior endured eight sacks in a loss to Virginia Tech last week and while he was hardly crisp - completing 11 of 18 passes - he did enough to lead Pitt on a five-play, 47-yard touchdown drive. He covered the final 5 yards himself, spinning between two defenders for his second rushing touchdown in as many weeks.
It was a score the Panthers needed.
ODU raced to a quick 10-0 lead behind Heinicke, who hit Marquel Thomas with a 15-yard touchdown pass to put the Monarchs in front. Brown then drilled a 54-yard field goal through the notoriously tricky winds at Heinz Field, the longest kick in the stadium's 12-year history.
The beginning was eerily similar to Pitt's humbling 31-17 loss to FCS-member Youngstown State in Paul Chryst's head coaching debut last year. The ending, however, was different.
Rather than panic or press, the Panthers turned to Bennett. The junior appeared to have lost any shot at grabbing the starting spot earlier in the season after James Conner's hot start. Conner, however, struggled in recent weeks and was limited in practice all week due to a shoulder injury sustained in last week's loss to Virginia Tech. Conner dressed but spent the entire night on the sideline watching Bennett go to work.
Bennett bolted up the middle for a 25-yard touchdown to get Pitt on the board early in the second quarter. A 56-yard punt return by Kevin Weatherspoon set up a 3-yard burst to give the Panthers the lead with 7:40 remaining in the half. Working behind a line that made sure he was rarely touched until he was into the secondary, Bennett put Pitt firmly in control late in the half, capping a 63-yard drive by darting up the middle for a 16-yard touchdown to make it 21-10 at the break.