Pitt Football: Panthers squander 21-point lead
Receiver Jonathan Baldwin was one of the many offensive stars for Pitt with six receptions for 113 yards, including two touchdown catches in the second quarter as the Panthers built a 31-10 lead before Cincinnati began its comeback.
Dave Wannstedt pleads his case with the referees late in yesterday's game at Heinz Field.
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The Pitt offense battered and bruised the Cincinnati defense time and time again yesterday afternoon. The Panthers scored six touchdowns, rushed for 193 yards and held the football almost twice as long as the Bearcats. The defense intercepted Cincinnati quarterback Tony Pike three times and held the Bearcats to more than 100 yards below their season average in yardage.
The only thing that kept Pitt from winning the Big East championship game and a berth in the Bowl Championship Series was the shoddy play of its special teams. The Panthers made several costly mistakes in the kicking game, and Cincinnati rallied from a 21-point deficit to shock the Panthers, 45-44, at Heinz Field.
The difference in the contest was a botched extra-point attempt. Pitt took a 44-38 lead with 1:36 remaining when Dion Lewis ran 5 yards for a touchdown. On the point-after attempt, sophomore holder Andrew Janocko mishandled the snap from center and place-kicker Dan Hutchins never got to attempt the kick.
Cincinnati capitalized on the mistake and scored the winning touchdown with 33 seconds remaining when Pike threw a 29-yard touchdown pass to Armon Binns. Jacob Rogers' extra point provided the winning margin and put the finishing touches on one of the most excruciating defeats in Pitt history.
"I told [Janocko] after the game that it wasn't one play, this game wasn't one play," Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "Everyone in that room could have done something during the course of the game to make a difference."
Everyone, presumably, includes the players on the kickoff coverage unit. They allowed the Bearcats to rack up 278 yards in returns, including a game-changing 99-yard run back for a touchdown at the end of the first half. It cut the deficit from 21 points to 14.
Mardy Gilyard provided the momentum-shifting return with 1:10 remaining before the half when he raced from his 1 to the end zone to make it 31-17. He also returned another kick 49 yards to the Pitt 23 midway through the fourth quarter to set up a touchdown that brought the Bearcats within eight points.
"It's tough because there is not much you can do," senior tight end Nate Byham said. "You're helpless. You're just watching it from the sidelines. One thing one coach emphasizes is how important special teams are. We work over a half hour a day on special teams. It was hard to see some of the big plays they made on special teams and the plays we didn't make on special teams."
Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly said Gilyard's 99-yard return was the biggest play in the game. Wannstedt agreed. The Bearcats had managed only 10 points and 147 yards on 32 plays from scrimmage in the first half.
"I thought the kickoff return for a touchdown completely changed the momentum of the game," Wannstedt said. "In the second half we couldn't get anything going and we never really regained that momentum that I felt like we had in the first half."
Pitt wasted a brilliant day from the freshman running back Lewis, who was not made available for comment after the game. He carried a school-record 47 times for 194 yards and three touchdowns, and touched the ball on 53 of Pitt's 76 plays from scrimmage.
"Dion Lewis is the best," Wannstedt said. "I love him. He's a great player. It's amazing for a freshman, 12 weeks into the season, to show up with the performance he had today."
As it turned out, Pitt could have used him a few more times at the end of the game. In a strange twist of fate, Lewis did his job too well in the final minutes.
With the score deadlocked, 38-38, Pitt had the ball with a first-and-10 at the Cincinnati 13 with less than two minutes remaining. The Panthers could have set up for a potential winning field-goal attempt and run the clock down to less than a minute, but Lewis ran for 8 yards on first down to the 5-yard line. On second down, he ran untouched into the end zone.
"We were trying [to run the clock down]," quarterback Bill Stull said. "That was one thing I was mentally aware of. We were trying to do that. It's kind of weird for us. We scored quickly."
And it proved costly. Gilyard returned the ensuing kickoff 26 yards to the 39. It only took Pike 63 seconds to lead his team to the winning touchdown. The defense, after playing so well in the first half, could not come up with a big play at the end to save the day.
"You live for that moment being a defensive lineman, being up by six with the ball in your court," senior defensive lineman Gus Mustakas said. "That's what you live for, and we weren't able to get the job done."
After going 8 for 23 for 84 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions in the first half, Pike was 14 for 21 for 218 yards and three scores in the second half. Pike was 4 for 4 on the winning drive, completing passes of 6, 10 and 16 yards before the deep pass to Binns that all but won the game.
"It's real tough," Mustakas said. "To be a senior and to go out like that ... we were so close."
First Published December 6, 2009 12:00 am