Pitt can still earn share of Big East title

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It was a simple exchange, really, but one that captured the magnitude of Pitt's game Saturday at Cincinnati -- for the team and for its beleaguered head coach.

When asked if the Panthers (6-5, 4-2 Big East) were playing for pride against Cincinnati (4-7, 2-4), head coach Dave Wannstedt tersely replied:

"We're not playing for pride, we're playing to get win number seven and win a part of [the Big East] championship, so let's not go down that road. Anything else?"

There is plenty of speculation about Wannstedt's job security, but most of it is from outside the university. Indications are that he likely will survive despite a very disappointing season for the Panthers. And a win against the Bearcats would solidify his hold on the job.

Pitt is trying to avoid its first non-winning regular season since 2007 and, with a victory, would have at least a share of the Big East title for only the second time in school history.

The first time was in 2004 when the Panthers shared the conference title with three other teams. And, as Pitt defensive tackle Chas Alecxih said, it would be a trophy to put in the case, something that only a handful of teams around the country will accomplish this season.

"We know with a win in this game we can still win the Big East title," said fullback Henry Hynoski when he was asked what is motivating the Panthers this week. "We have to go out and play hard; the Big East title is still our motivation. We can't worry about what is going to happen with everybody else, we only can worry about what we can control."

Said safety Dom DeCicco: "Obviously it was a huge letdown, what happened against West Virginia, and we're all crushed by it, but the past is the past and all you can do is look forward. We do still have a chance to win part of the Big East championship and that is all we have left, so we're going to go out fighting in this last game and do everything we need to do to win."

Wannstedt said those tangible things -- a winning record and a conference title -- are great for motivation, but that's not where the Panthers' focus should be.

"There is only one thing to focus on -- finding a way to win this game," Wannstedt said. "What happens, bowl games, last year's game ... is that all part of it? It is, but not from the coaches and players standpoint. Our focus needs to be on playing as good as we can play this week and finding a way to win this game."

And that started with Sunday's practice, the first after a disappointing 35-10 loss Friday to West Virginia, that the players described as a "good one." Alecxih said practice was a little sluggish at first, but the Panthers quickly regained their spirit and intensity.

The fact that Cincinnati has beaten Pitt the past two years -- both times with the conference championship on the line -- just adds to the Panthers' motivation.

Last year, the Bearcats overcame a 21-point deficit at Heinz Field to beat the Panthers, 45-44, on a touchdown pass with 33 seconds to play in the final game of the regular season.

Had Pitt won, the Panthers would have won the conference title, had their first 10-win regular season since the Dan Marino era and earned a BCS berth and a trip to the Sugar Bowl. Instead, they ended up with a trip to the Meineke Car Care Bowl.

"They took it away from us last year and we're not going to let them take it away from us this year," Hynoski said. "We're very confident and we have to get back at these guys with what happened last week [against West Virginia] and with what happened last year as well. This is a huge game for us as far as that is concerned."

DeCicco added: "Definitely we owe these guys. They have ruined our season the past two years, so beyond all the other stuff, there is a reason to go out there and want to beat these guys."

Paul Zeise: pzeise@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1720.


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