It wasn’t a bad day at all for Paul Hackett.
Before Saturday’s John Hancock Bowl, Hackett was elevated from interim status to the Panthers’ head coach. Then, Alex Van Pelt threw a 44-yard, game-winning touchdown to Henry Tuten to give Pittsburgh a 31-28 victory over Texas A&M.;
“We were just looking for the first down,” Van Pelt said of the pass with 2:19 remaining. “They blitzed and they bumped up on Henry Tuten and he just ran a go route, ran perfect, the line held out, and he caught it.”
Among those pushing the strongest for Hackett was Van Pelt, a redshirt freshman who hadn’t played a down until former starter Darnell Dickerson became an academic casualty.
All Van Pelt did under Hackett’s tutelage was pass for 15 touchdowns and 2,527 yards, a total surpassed at Pitt by only Dan Marino.
Van Pelt was so concerned about Pitt’s plans for the bowl--and about Hackett’s future--"that he called me about 15 times” the day Mike Gottfried was fired as coach, Hackett said.
“The players are all for him,” Van Pelt said. “I mean, he’s a hell of a coach.”
Despite being credited with developing quarterbacks such as Joe Montana, Brian Sipe, Danny White and Steve Bartkowski, Hackett was beginning to wonder if he would ever be his own boss.
Hackett was a finalist for several jobs, including two at Stanford, but wondered if he might be stereotyped as an offensive tactician best suited to being an assistant coach.
After Van Pelt’s touchdown put Pittsburgh ahead, Texas A&M;'s ensuing drive fizzled on an interception.
The winning pass went right through the arms of A&M; cornerback Kevin Smith.
“You can’t fault Kevin Smith,” Texas A&M; Coach R.C. Slocum said. “He was in position. He just didn’t make the play, and their guy did.”
The Panthers also made a decisive play after Texas A&M;'s first touchdown, when the Aggies tried a two-point conversion but were stopped. The Aggies tried, and failed, twice more on two-point conversions, which gave Pittsburgh its margin of victory.
“It’s something that automatically is done on the field anytime a team doesn’t adjust to the formation,” Slocum said of the first failed conversion attempt. “They made a great play on it.”
Van Pelt, who completed 20 of 40 passes for 354 yards and two touchdowns, also ran for a one-yard touchdown and was named the game’s most valuable player.
Texas A&M; quarterback Lance Pavlas came back from a rib injury to erase a 14-point deficit. Randy Simmons capped a drive by scoring from five yards out with 9:32 left in the game to put the Aggies ahead, 28-24.
But Van Pelt led the Panthers on an 84-yard touchdown drive capped by the 44-yarder to Tuten, who had four catches for 96 yards.
Texas A&M;'s comeback try was stopped when Pavlas, throwing a desperation pass, was intercepted by Barry Threats with 1:05 remaining. The Panthers ran out the clock.
For the Panthers, Curvin Richards carried 23 times for 156 yards and wideout Olanda Truitt had four catches for 124 yards. Pavlas completed 10 of 20 for 152 yards and had two intercepted. Robert Wilson led the Aggies in rushing with 145 yards in 16 carries and Keith McAfee had 94 yards in 15 carries.
Pavlas missed the second quarter and the first series of the third quarter. He bruised a lower right rib when he landed on the ball after scrambling for a 12-yard touchdown late in the first quarter. He also complained of numbness in his throwing hand.
Pittsburgh finished with an 8-3-1 record. Texas A&M; was 8-4.