Senior safety Dom DeCicco remembers what it felt like to walk off the field at Nippert Stadium two years ago after a 28-21 loss to Cincinnati that cost Pitt the Big East Conference championship.
He didn't think it could get any worse than that -- until last year when the Panthers blew a 21-point lead on their home field and lost to the Bearcats, 45-44, with the conference championship on the line again in the final game of the regular season.
DeCicco said it was a bad feeling in 2008, but it was an awful feeling last year -- and it is one that neither he nor his fellow seniors want to go through again this year.
That is something they've talked about in the past week and they are determined to get it right this time when they face West Virginia (7-3, 3-2 Big East) at noon Friday at Heinz Field. The Panthers (6-4, 4-1) can clinch at least a share of the Big East championship with a win.
DeCicco said the Panthers have been so close to winning these big games the past two years that losing this one would be more crushing than last year's loss to Cincinnati.
"Winning the Big East is everything to us," DeCicco said. "I know for me and the rest of the seniors, this our last time playing at Heinz Field and this is going to be an emotional game to begin with, but the Big East is on the line so we have to do everything in our power to make sure we bring it home this year.
"We had it right within our grasp the last two years and we let it slip away from us. We know what that feels like and it is just going to motivate us come Friday."
DeCicco is one of 11 seniors on the roster, and he said it is only appropriate that they are playing their biggest rival in a game with so much at stake.
This senior class, with 30 wins the past four years, is the winningest since the 2005 class, which won the same number of games. DeCicco said it will be hollow if the Panthers don't win the next two games and get to a BCS bowl.
Unlike a lot of senior classes, this one is small. Only six seniors -- DeCicco, defensive end Jabaal Sheard, center Alex Karabin, offensive tackle Jason Pinkston, punter/kicker Dan Hutchins and cornerback Ricky Gary -- start for the Panthers. Of the others in the class, defensive end Greg Romeus is injured, defensive end Nate Nix is a special teams ace, and receiver Greg Cross, defensive back Dan Cafaro and defensive lineman Tyler Tkach are reserves.
"These guys have experienced a lot," said coach Dave Wannstedt. "They came in and went through a few tough years where we've had to overcome some adversity. And they've had a little taste of it and they got the program going back in the right direction. And I think they take a lot of pride in that.
"The only thing that is lacking from this group is to win a championship."
Gary said the lack of a Big East championship is a painful hole in their resume.
"We have been fighting for a championship for so long here," Gary said. "And to do it [tomorrow] against West Virginia, it would be a hell of an out for the seniors, man, for just the football team and the whole program because they are a great team. If we could do it against them, we are going to have a promising end to this season."
Aside from the immediate rewards of a win, DeCicco said this is a chance for the seniors to control their legacy.
"If you can't be motivated for this game on either side of the rivalry then you shouldn't be playing football," DeCicco said. "But for us seniors, it is the perfect scenario you could ask for -- we're playing West Virginia, there are Big East implications on the line, it is our senior recognition game, you can't ask for much more than that, now it is up to us to perform.
"We all want to be the senior class who brought the BCS back to Pittsburgh."
Paul Zeise: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1720. First Published November 25, 2010 5:00 AM