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Starkey: Pitt's toughest loss in decades

This was, without a doubt, one of the most crushing losses in the history of Pitt football.

You have to go back 28 years just to find one that compares.

On Nov. 28, 1981, top-ranked Pitt was a victory away from playing for the national championship and looked to be headed there in grand style when it raced to a 14-0 lead over visiting Penn State.

But that was before the locomotives started going the wrong way, as then-Pitt coach Jackie Sherrill put it.

"And when that happens," Sherrill said, "you can get run over."

Die-hard Pitt fans refer to the debacle simply by its final score — 48-14. From this day forward, whenever they mention it, they likely will be compelled to include another haunting score — 45-44.

That's what the scoreboard said late Saturday afternoon at Heinz Field, even though Pitt led Cincinnati, 31-10, with 1:26 left in the first half and 38-24 with 12:26 left in regulation.

Instead of the smashing success of a Big East title and a possible trip to the Sugar Bowl, Pitt's season must be termed a major disappointment. It will end in a minor bowl.

Shortly after the gun sounded, one of the Pitt coaches walked toward the press-box elevator and said: "Can you believe that?"

Unfortunately, those who have followed the head-coaching career of Dave Wannstedt would have a one-word answer to that question, and it wouldn't be no.

Somehow, some way, Wannstedt's teams lose big games.

It's incredible, actually.

How do you lose a game in which you have a three-touchdown lead against a team that cannot stop your running game?

How do you lose when you control the ball for nearly 40 minutes and score 44 points?

The Panthers did it Steelers-style, with poor kick-coverage and a defense that folded late for the second consecutive week.

The special teams started out well enough, stuffing Cincinnati's electric return man, Mardy Gilyard, on his first few touches and blocking a punt to set up a touchdown.

That was the one that put Pitt ahead by three touchdowns with 1:26 left in the first half.

Gilyard, however, took the ensuing kickoff and raced 99 yards for a touchdown, a play Wannstedt and Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly said changed the momentum for good.

I'm not so sure.

First of all, Pitt easily could have reversed momentum before the half but wasted an Elijah Fields interception that put them on the Bearcats' 44 with 34 seconds left.

Quarterback Bill Stull, who did not have a banner day, was immediately picked off. That marked the second straight week Stull threw a killer interception late in the first half.

But don't forget, Pitt still led by two touchdowns with a little more than 12 minutes left in regulation.

The real momentum change happened next, because Pitt gave the ball to Gilyard again. He caught a pooch kick on the left sideline returned it 49 yards to the Pitt 23.

Why not just kick it out of bounds?

Why not do anything but put it in Gilyard's mitts?

Wannstedt, who coaches Pitt's special teams, explained his strategy.

"We were trying to pooch-kick it to (a linebacker), and Gilyard got his hands on the ball," he said. "We should have made the tackle. Somebody fell down right in the hole looking for the ball. We had a couple of things like that that make a big difference in field position."

The special-teams play that everyone will remember happened after Pitt scored with 1:36 left to take a 44-38 lead, when holder Andrew Janocko dropped the snap.

Needless to say, Gilyard caught the ensuing kickoff (the only player Pitt fed more was its own tailback, Dion Lewis, who carried 47 times). Gilyard returned it to the Cincinnati 39 to set up the winning drive, as quarterback Tony Pike carved up Pitt's defense in four plays. The last was a 29-yard pass to 6-foot-4 Armon Binns, who beat 5-9 Jovani Chappel.

Soon after that, the locomotive that was Pitt's season came to a crashing halt.

And about 60,000 people felt like they'd just been run over in what could only be termed a train-wreck of a loss.

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