If Pitt squints hard, it can see silver lining

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You want a positive spin on Pitt's mostly terrible performance in a 19-16 loss to West Virginia last night?

The Cincinnati players watched it on ESPN2 and will come into Heinz Field overconfident next Saturday when they play the Panthers in what amounts to the Big East Conference championship game.

Hey, it's the best I can do.

Overall, Pitt was that dreadful.

This was a bad loss to a really ordinary West Virginia team.

The Panthers (9-2) still can make this a magical season, of course. They can accomplish their biggest goal -- winning the league and going to a BCS game -- by beating unbeaten No. 5 Cincinnati. I like their chances at home. But clearly, they can't play as poorly as they did last night or anything even close to it. If they do, they will get blown out. And if they do lose and end up in third place in the conference behind Cincinnati and West Virginia and go to some really inconsequential bowl, they won't remember this as a great season.

Not to put any pressure on 'em.

"We have high-character kids that are highly motivated," Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said shortly before heading for what figured to be an awfully quiet bus ride back to Oakland. "We will turn the page on this one fast and get ready for another big one next week."

The preparation starts today, linebacker Adam Gunn said. The captains spoke up after the game and decided the players will report to their South Side complex at noon on what is supposed to be an off day. "The Backyard Brawl, we wanted to win it," Gunn said. "Now, we want to win the Big East championship."

As Wannstedt noted, quite correctly, "We've got to clean up some things."

A lot of things, actually.

Quarterback Bill Stull led a 10-point comeback in the fourth quarter and threw a 50-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Jonathan Baldwin to produce a 16-16 tie with 2:54 left but still had his worst game since the Sun Bowl last December with two hurtful interceptions. The defense allowed West Virginia tailback Noel Devine to run for an 88-yard touchdown in the third quarter when safety Dom DeCicco missed the key tackle, then couldn't stop the Mountaineers from marching down the field for the winning 43-yard field goal by Tyler Bitancurt at the gun. Offensive tackle Jason Pinkston took a bad chop-block penalty late in the third quarter, ending a promising Pitt drive. Even Wannstedt had a questionable night, having kicker Dan Hutchins try, against all odds, a 53-yard field goal late in the third quarter.

In the end Pitt got exactly what it deserved.

Not that this loss was totally unexpected.

The game had trouble written all over it for Pitt even before the start.

For one thing, the Mountaineers -- playing on Senior Night -- wanted to get a small measure of redemption for their 19-15 loss at Heinz Field last November and, more significantly, their 13-9 loss here in 2007. They hadn't lost three consecutive games in the heated rivalry since the Panthers won seven in a row from 1976-82. Of course, from the Mountaineers' standpoint, nothing will make up for that '07 defeat when Pitt came into Mountaineer Stadium as a four-touchdown underdog and cost them a trip to the national championship game.

For another thing, Pitt had that safety net of not having to win. I'm no psychologist, but that couldn't have been a good thing in some deep, dark place in the Panthers' collective subconscious. It's one thing to play when everything is on the line. It's another to do it when you know you can lose and still live your dream.

Pitt was thoroughly outplayed for three quarters but got a couple of big breaks, thanks to two curious decisions by West Virginia coach Bill Stewart. With the game scoreless early in the second quarter, West Virginia went for it on fourth-and-goal from virtually the Pitt 2 rather than kick a field goal. Quarterback Jarrett Brown was sacked by defensive tackle Gus Mustakas. Then late in the first half, with Pitt leading, 3-0, the Mountaineers elected to kick a field goal on third-and-goal from the Panthers' 3 with 8.8 seconds left. Brown is a senior quarterback with plenty of experience. Don't you have to trust him to take a shot in the end zone and then kick on fourth down if necessary?

But the Mountaineers were good enough on this night -- and the Panthers bad enough for much of it -- for Stewart's decisions not to matter when Bitancurt kicked that game-winner. Devine helped make sure of that with his sweet run for a touchdown. Bitancurt kicked a 39-yard field goal after Stull badly overthrew Baldwin for his second interception. Then, Brown was big on the winning 10-play drive, running for 10 and 9 yards and throwing an 11-yard pass to wide receiver Alric Arnett.

This was a good night to be a Mountaineer.

All things considered, though, Pitt is pretty lucky.

Next Saturday still has a chance to be a really good day for the Panthers.

Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com .


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