Pitt gets what it deserves

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The beauty of sports is that a team almost always gets what it deserves.

So it was for Pitt Saturday night in a 26-23 loss to Cincinnati at Heinz Field, a defeat that almost certainly means no championship for the Panthers even in the incredibly lame Big East Conference.

Not that Pitt deserves a championship, of course.

Not a 4-5 team that is the definition of mediocre.

The thing is, amazingly enough, that title was there for Pitt. Beat Cincinnati at home and it would have moved into a tie for first place with Louisville in the league. Beat Louisville next Saturday at Louisville and ...

It doesn't much matter now.

Not after Pitt collapsed against Cincinnati under the weight of a horrible second-half performance by its offense that was playing without injured star running back Ray Graham.

This wasn't what coach Todd Graham had in mind when he rolled into town, promising explosive, high-octane football.

"We made too many mental errors on offense," he said.

It was hard to watch.

Not the first 34 minutes of the game. At that point, Pitt led, 23-13, and looked as if it was going to win easily. Its defense was the best unit on the field, turning in the biggest play -- an interception and 39-yard return to the Cincinnati 4 by linebacker Todd Thomas in the second quarter. Its offense had scored on five of its first six possessions, the final time early in the third quarter on a 4-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Tino Sunseri to H-back Hubie Graham. It didn't commit a penalty or a turnover.

But the rest?

You wanted to hide your eyes if you were at the stadium or watching on television.

Pitt's final eight possessions went like this: punt, fumble by Sunseri, interception by Sunseri, punt, punt, punt, a failed fourth-down conversion and a missed 50-yard field goal by kicker Kevin Harper.

"I hated to see it come down to a field goal -- and it shouldn't have," Graham said. "Defensively, I thought we played well enough to win the game. My heart goes out to those guys in that locker room."

Pitt wasted two terrific scoring opportunities. An ineligible-man-downfield penalty on guard Juantez Hollins wiped out an 18-yard pass to wide receiver Mike Shanahan at the Cincinnati 21 early in the fourth quarter, one of five second-half penalties -- one was declined -- against the Panthers. Then, after an interception by cornerback K'Waun Williams gave Pitt the ball at the Cincinnati 40 with 4:44 left, the offense did nothing, gaining 4 yards on two runs by reserve back Isaac Bennett before two incompletions by Sunseri.

Did I mention Pitt didn't deserve to win?

The turnovers by Sunseri turned the game Cincinnati's way. Pitt led, 23-16, when he ran for a first down on a third-and-2 play from the Pitt 26 only to be stripped of the ball by defensive end Walter Stewart. Cincinnati needed just three plays to score the tying touchdown. Then, on Pitt's next possession, Sunseri's pass was tipped by Stewart and intercepted by cornerback Camerron Cheatham and returned 12 yards to the Pitt 26. This time, it took Cincinnati four plays to get the winning field goal early in the fourth quarter.

After Sunseri threw for 419 yards in a 35-20 win Oct. 26 against Connecticut, Graham described his and the offense's performance as "average."

You're probably dying to know what Graham had to say about Sunseri after this game.

"We win as a football team and lose as a football team," Graham said, clearly wanting no part of the question. "We didn't get it done [on offense]. That's on us as coaches."

I'm willing to give the man his share of the blame. Certainly, there was enough to go around. This loss was just as bad as the four that came before it against Iowa, Notre Dame, Rutgers and Utah.

"It's a crazy league," Graham insisted. "It ain't over yet."

Not the season, of course.

Pitt has to play at Louisville and West Virginia before finishing its schedule at home against Syracuse.

A winning season, though unlikely, remains possible.

So does a trip to some meaningless bowl.

That's the best that Pitt deserves.


Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com . Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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