Pitt and Cincinnati met at Heinz Field Saturday night for the second time in the past three years, and, just like the 2009 meeting, it was a heartbreaker for the Panthers.
That's because Kevin Harper's 50-yard field-goal attempt with 14 seconds left sailed wide right, enabling the Bearcats to hold on for a 26-23 victory against the Panthers before a crowd of 49,362.
"My heart goes out to those guys in the locker room because they laid it on the line," Pitt coach Todd Graham said. "I hated for it to come to that last field goal -- it shouldn't have. We made way too many mental errors. The second half, we went out and turned over the football twice and had a penalty that hurt us."
Graham said the snap and hold on the final field goal were not as good as they needed to be, but Harper said that was no excuse.
"It seemed to get off my toe a little bit and sailed a little right," Harper said. "If [the snapper and holder] get the ball down, it is my responsibility to make it."
The loss is a crushing one for the Panthers (4-5, 2-1) because it means they most likely are eliminated from the Big East Conference championship race and will have to scramble to win two of their final three be bowl-eligible.
Cincinnati (7-1, 3-0) took a huge step toward winning the conference as every other team except Louisville (5-4, 3-1) has at least two conference losses. The Bearcats already have beaten the Cardinals, so they essentially have a two-game lead.
"It is a crazy league and it isn't over yet," Graham said. "We've got to regroup, and our guys will do that."
Pitt had a 10-point lead midway through the third quarter, but the Panthers blew it thanks to consecutive turnovers by Tino Sunseri, and the Bearcats clawed their way to a 3-point lead early in the fourth.
The Panthers mounted one final drive in a bid to tie the game, driving to Cincinnati's 33, but Harper, who had made a 52-yard earlier, missed the most important one of the game, if not the season.
Both teams came out strong as the first three possessions produced solid drives for scores, but all three ended with field goals. Cincinnati got things started with a seven-play, 74-yard drive that produced a 3-0 lead on a 27-yard field goal by Tony Miliano.
On the ensuing drive, the Panthers moved into the Bearcats half of the field, but they came away with a Heinz Field collegiate-record 52-yard field goal by Harper instead of touchdown.
After the teams traded field goals again, the Panthers took advantage of a turnover to score the first touchdown after linebacker Todd Thomas intercepted a Zach Collaros pass and returned it 39 yards to the Bearcats' 4.
One play later, Sunseri scored on a 4-yard touchdown run to give Pitt a 13-6 lead.
The lead was short-lived, however, as Collaros led a 12-play, 85-yard drive and ran 7 yards to tie the score, 13-13.
Pitt took a 16-13 lead at halftime and wasted no time adding to it in the third.
The Panthers needed five plays to go 60 yards and score on a 4-yard touchdown pass from Sunseri to Hubie Graham for a 23-13 lead.
Cincinnati closed to 23-16 on Miliano's 32-yard field goal with 3:57 left in the third.
Then, Sunseri made two killer mistakes that led to 10 unanswered points by Cincinnati, who grabbed a 26-23 lead on Miliano's 41-yard field goal early in the fourth.
Sunseri said his turnovers likely were the difference, even though they took place in the third quarter.
"Turnovers," Sunseri said when asked how Cincinnati seized the momentum.
"[My fumble] is when the tide really started to turn on us. You can't have turnovers at your own 30, especially against an offense like Cincinnati's, where they are high-powered and can score a lot of points.
"I have to make sure that I play turnover-free."
Pitt had a chance to kick a potential game-tying field goal with 3:37 left on a fourth-and-6 from the Bearcats' 36, but Todd Graham chose to go for it. Sunseri's pass for Devin Street was incomplete.
"It was a little far out for a field goal," Graham said. "We had a good play and we thought we could make [the first down] and we played the percentages. We didn't execute the play."
NOTES -- Pitt offensive lineman Lucas Nix (knee) did not play and was replaced by Juantez Hollins at left guard. ... Freshman tailback Isaac Bennett made his first appearance in a game, meaning he no longer is eligible for a redshirt.