Pitt's seniors can be college kids for a little longer

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Saturday marked the third time many of the Pitt football seniors have beaten Syracuse in their careers, but this game might have been the most significant.

The Panthers' 17-16 win in Carrier Dome ensured that the seniors' careers would last for one more game.

"That was the plan, coming up here," tight end Manasseh Garner said after the game, which gave Pitt six wins this season and ensured bowl eligibility for the sixth consecutive year.

"We practiced hard this whole week. That was the thing that was on our minds, just to come up here, get a win and just keep moving."

It was the second time in three years Pitt has clinched a postseason appearance against the Orange. The Panthers' 33-20 victory at Heinz Field in the final game of the 2011 season sent them to their second consecutive BBVA Compass Bowl.

Over the seniors' playing careers, they have only played in the Compass Bowl game, which Pitt has attended three years in a row. Those who redshirted in the 2009 season traveled to the Meineke Car Care Bowl in Charlotte, N.C., but did not play.

This season's destination almost certainly will not be to Birmingham, Ala., Jan. 4, a relief to fans and players alike. A victory Friday against Miami likely would ensure the Panthers one of the Atlantic Coast Conference's eight bowl spots.

With a loss, they may have to take a bid from another league that cannot fill its quota. There's a chance the Southeastern Conference won't have a representative to send to the BBVA Compass Bowl, but it's highly unlikely either Pitt or bowl officials would be interested in a fourth consecutive trip.

ESPN's projections have the Panthers going to either the Military Bowl (Annapolis, Md.) against Marshall or the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl (Detroit) against Ball State. CBS Sports projects Pitt to face Marshall in the Liberty Bowl.

Wherever the Panthers go, it's a chance for the seniors to enjoy playing college football for a few more weeks.

"I get to stay with these guys a little longer, and that's good," defensive tackle Aaron Donald said. "I get to be a college kid a little longer."

Donald played a big role in securing Pitt's bowl spot, with nine tackles, 3.5 tackles for losses, two quarterback hurries and a blocked extra point against the Orange. He was named the Walter Camp National Defensive Player of the Week.

Even younger players, who stand to benefit from the extra month of practices a bowl game affords them, were happy to win one for their older teammates.

"This senior class is [a group of] leaders," freshman receiver Tyler Boyd said. "These boys don't taking nothing from nobody. They lead us in the right direction."

Sam Werner: swerner@post-gazette.com and Twitter @SWernerPG.

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