Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt spoke with reporters Sunday, the day after the Panthers' 45-44 meltdown against Cincinnati, and insisted that the football program was much brighter than the outcome of the regular season would indicate.
"Right now we are light years ahead of where we were when I arrived," Wannstedt said. "The foundation is built and our program is clearly headed in the right direction."
Although Pitt fans -- still disappointed by the fact that the Panthers blew a 21-point lead against the Bearcats in the battle for the Big East Conference championship and that the week before Pitt lost to West Virginia in the Backyard Brawl -- probably aren't ready to accept that, the truth is that Wannstedt is correct.
The season was full of far more ups than downs and was clearly another step in the right direction.
Consider the following:
• Pitt won nine games for the second year in a row, a feat the Panthers hadn't accomplished since 1981-82.
• The Panthers finished the season ranked in the top 20, something they had only done one time -- 2002 -- since 1989.
• Pitt finished first or second in the Big East in scoring offense (33.2 points per game, second), scoring defense (20 ppg, second), total offense (400 yards per game, second), total defense (324 ypg, second), rushing offense (184.6 ypg, first) and rushing defense (108.4 ypg, second) and sacks (44, first).
• Quarterback Bill Stull was the second rated passer in the conference (205.8 ypg, 152.5 passer rating and 21 touchdowns), tailback Dion Lewis was the leading rusher (136.7 ypg) and tied kicker Dan Hutchins (102 points) as the league's scoring leader.
Perhaps most important, Pitt's three losses were by a combined 11 points -- the two Big East losses by a combined four points and both of the winning scores came in the final 40 seconds of the game. Pitt was in every game it played and never overmatched and that is something the Panthers have not always been able to claim, even in recent years when they have contended for Big East championships.
"I think it is clear that so many good things happened this year for us and we did some things we hadn't done around here in a long time," Wannstedt said. "It has been a successful year, but we aren't satisfied with it from the standpoint of [getting] so close that we know we are doing the right things and will continue to move forward."
More important than the positive things that took place this season, the Panthers should be poised for another good season next year -- and if a couple of things break the right way contend again for the Big East championship.
Pitt loses three starting offensive linemen and both tight ends, as well as Stull, but the rest of the backfield returns, as do both offensive tackles as well as leading receiver Jonathan Baldwin.
The core is there for a very good offense, particularly in year two of working with offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti.
Defensively, the Panthers will lose their tackles, middle linebacker Adam Gunn and two cornerbacks, but a number of players at all five of those positions who played big roles this year will return.
Wannstedt may be in the market for a new defensive coordinator as Phil Bennett is likely to leave to be closer to his family in Texas. But it seems clear that if Bennett leaves defensive line coach Greg Gattuso could be promoted to maintain the continuity.
Pitt expects to continue its trend of graduating almost all of its scholarship seniors, the season ticket base is larger than ever and its winter strength-and-conditioning program is first rate.
That, however, is all big picture stuff, and right now Wannstedt's toughest issue is going to be convincing his players that all was not lost Saturday and that they need to regroup to finish the season with a win against North Carolina in the Meineke Car Care Bowl -- and achieve 10 wins for the first time since 1981.
Paul Zeise can be reached at email@example.com .