IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) - With all hope apparently lost, Iowa turned to James Vandenberg and asked the junior to start chucking it.
Vandenberg responded by engineering the biggest comeback in Hawkeyes' history.
Vandenberg threw three touchdown passes in the fourth quarter and Iowa rallied from a 17-point deficit with just over 12 minutes left to stun Pittsburgh 31-27 on Saturday.
Iowa running back Marcus Coker tries to break a tackle by Pittsburgh linebacker Tristan Roberts (32) during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 17, 2011, in Iowa City, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Vandenberg threw for 399 yards - including 162 in the fourth quarter - and he completed the Hawkeyes' rally with a 22-yard TD pass to Kevonte Martin-Manley with 2:51 left.
Iowa (2-1) trailed 27-10 early in the fourth quarter. But Vandenberg threw TD strikes of 14 yards to Keenan Davis and 25 yards to Martin-Manley to bring the Hawkeyes within three points. He then found a leaping Martin-Manley for the go-ahead score.
"For three quarters, you saw a pretty ugly James Vandenberg who was a little confused. Those guys just started making plays and it made me more comfortable," Vandenberg said. "I trusted those guys with every one of those throws down the stretch."
Iowa's Micah Hyde picked off Pittsburgh quarterback Tino Sunseri with 1:41 left to cap a wild win for the Hawkeyes (2-1), who narrowly avoided their worst start in 11 years.
"We made it really tough on ourselves in a lot of different regards. But the big thing is, the guys hung in there and they kept fighting," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "We clearly have a lot of work to do, but it all starts with the effort and not quitting and the guys did a great job of that."
Devin Street had seven catches for 138 yards and Ray Graham rushed for 97 yards for the Panthers - whose biggest news of the day came off the field.
A high-ranking Atlantic Coast Conference official said Saturday that the league has received application letters from Pittsburgh and Syracuse to join.
"I have no idea about that. Ask somebody else besides me," Pittsburgh coach Todd Graham said.
Sunseri had 255 yards passing and two TDs for the Panthers (2-1), who looked to have locked up a key road win more than once before they were torched by a resurgent Vandenberg.
The Panthers led by as much as 24-3 on Sunseri's 4-yard TD pass to Drew Carswell with 3:11 left in the third quarter. Vandenberg moved the Hawkeyes 60 yards in under two minutes and scored on a 1-yard plunge to make it 24-10 - but Pitt answered with a long drive capped by Kevin Harper's 24-yard field goal with 12:09 to go, putting Iowa three scores behind again.
Given how stagnant Iowa's offense had looked to that point, the Hawkeyes didn't seem to have enough left to make it close, let alone escape with a much-needed win.
"They did a good job those first two quarters. Everywhere I looked, I felt our guys were covered up. They were mixing it up so much," Vandenberg said. "But we had such great protection down the stretch."
Vandenberg had something to do with it too, completing 14 of 17 passes in the fourth quarter.
Vandenberg cut Pitt's lead to 27-17 with 9:55 left, finding Davis for a 14-yard score. The Panthers moved to Iowa's 36-yard line but were stopped on fourth down, leaving the door open for Vandenberg to lead the Hawkeyes right back down the field.
Iowa caught a break when Pittsburgh's Buddy Jackson was called for pass interference on a key third down. Two plays later, Vandenberg hit Martin-Manley from 25 yards out to make it 27-24 with 6:19 left.
The Hawkeyes forced another quick punt, and Vandenberg drove the Hawkeyes 64 yards in just 1:31 before capping the comeback with a 22-yard TD toss to Martin-Manley.
"It's nothing they did at all, not at all. It was something we did," Pitt defensive tackle Chas Alecxih said. "We beat the absolute heck out of them for 3 quarters and then we just didn't finish the game."
Davis had 10 catches for 129 yards and Marvin McNutt added 112 yards receiving for Iowa, whose 21-point rally topped its 18-point comeback against Oregon in 1949.
"I was trying to forget in some ways right about mid-third quarter," Ferentz said. "That'll be good medicine for our football team."
For most of the afternoon, it looked as Pitt had little to worry about.
The Panthers opened the second half up 10-3, and used some trickery to extend the lead.
Ray Graham took a handoff and gave it to receiver Ronald Jones on a reverse. Jones did the rest, floating it out to an open Cameron Saddler for a 30-yard touchdown to give the Panthers a 17-3 lead.
Pitt made it 24-3 just three minutes later, and some Iowa fans headed for the exits certain Iowa would be 1-2 for the first time since 2000.
The ones who stayed rushed the field at the final whistle, as the Hawkeyes bounced back from a 44-41 triple-overtime loss at Iowa State in a manner few thought possible.
"On the road in a place like this, you've got to close it out. We talked before the game about it, we talked all throughout the game when we were three scores up that we've got to finish," Todd Graham said. "You can't let up and play not to lose."