Everything on the campus of Pittsburgh was rosy two weeks ago. They were 9-1 and riding a six-game winning streak, most recently a 27-22 victory over Notre Dame. The next two games on their schedule matched them with unranked West Virginia and with fifth-ranked Cincinnati.
A win over WVU guaranteed at least the Gator Bowl, and win over Cincy guaranteed a BCS bowl. A win over both would have helped to produce one of their best seasons since Marino was in town.
They got off the bus at Morgantown, but somehow the offense never quite joined the party until it was too late...9-2.
Well no problem. Simply beat the Bearcats, and a BCS Bowl is next. For a while the Orange Bowl, Fiesta Bowl, maybe even Sugar Bowl, looked like a guarantee. Pitt was moving the ball at will, while Cincinnati was floundering.
Bill Stull had just connected with Johnathan Baldwin on a 40-yard touchdown pass to give Pitt a 21-10 lead and their third TD in as many drives. A Tony Pike interception then lead to a FG, while a blocked punt then led to a TD. The lead was 31-10.
The Pitt crowd was roaring. The defense was playing brilliantly, and the Panthers always had Dion Lewis in their back pocket. Cincinnati was close to finished.
The only problem was Mardy Gilyard. He returned the ensuing kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown, and it all came crashing down for Pitt.
Cincinnati would narrow the lead to 32-24 going into the fourth quarter off a 68-yard catch and run by Gilyard.
The Panthers would respond with a touchdown of their own in the form of a Dion Lewis 15-yard run. Then Gilyard got them again with a long kickoff return, setting up a short touchdown run to cut the lead to 38-30 after a missed extra point.
The Bearcats would later tie it at 38 all. With not much time left Pitt did rally and score a touchdown with under two minutes to go, but the extra point was botched, and the lead stayed at six. The Bearcats followed the inevitable script and went right down the field to take the lead and ultimately win the game, 45-44.
Following the 31-10 lead, Pitt was outscored 35-13 the rest of the way.
Pitt had more first downs and dominated in time of possession—40 minutes to just 20 for the Bearcats—but none of that mattered when the Bearcats were starting every drive at midfield or better.
In one half of a football game, Pitt falls from the BCS to probably the Meineke Car Care Bowl. Quite a drop when you were 9-1 and the ninth-best team in the nation.
All year Pitt looked like a vastly improved team over the one from last year that finished 9-3 and made an appearance in the Sun Bowl.
With two games remaining, 10, maybe 11 wins and a major bowl for the first time since 2004 were on the horizon. They just had to beat two good teams to get there. They were not good enough to do so.
With the loss today Pitt proved that they are no better than last year. Dave Wannstedt, the head coach, has talked a lot about taking this program to the next level. They got back to a bowl game last season, but they had a BCS Bowl in their pocket with one game left.
The next level was only one door away, they simply didn't have the key. If they can't improve and get to a major bowl next year Wannstedt's seat could get very hot. This is a program far too tired of mediocrity to accept 9-3 and a mid-level bowl anymore.
If they can't open the door next year it could be the beginning of the end for Wannstedt.