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Pit has mixed relationship with Sun Bowl

| Tuesday, Dec. 23, 2008

Whether Tony Dorsett was one of three running backs to rush for 100 yards or Alex Van Pelt was putting his John Hancock on it with a touchdown pass, the Sun Bowl has a prominent place in Pitt football history.

The Panthers are undefeated in two appearances in a game that celebrates its 75th anniversary on New Year's Eve by staging No. 18 Pitt (9-3) against No. 24 Oregon State (8-4) at Sun Bowl Stadium in El Paso, Texas.

Where Pitt's first Sun Bowl appearance served as the start of a golden era, the other marked its end. Just look at the differences:

• After beating Kansas, 33-19, in the 1975 Sun Bowl, the Panthers compiled a 71-12-1 record (.845 winning percentage) in the next seven seasons. They won the 1976 national championship, made eight consecutive bowl trips and strung together three successive 11-1 seasons from 1979-81.

• After beating Texas A&M, 31-28, in the 1989 John Hancock Bowl, the Panthers went 32-53-1 (.372) in the next seven seasons. They had only one winning season — 6-5 in 1991 — and went seven consecutive years without bowl bids before Walt Harris led Pitt to the 1997 Liberty Bowl.

That's something Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt hasn't addressed with his players, the majority of whom are making their first bowl appearance.

"The kids know how good of a bowl the Sun Bowl is and that Pitt played in it, and the history with those two games," Wannstedt said, "but we haven't talked about much more than that."

These Panthers are hoping to find more similarities to their '75 predecessors, starting with their ultra-talented tailbacks — sophomore LeSean McCoy has put up the best back-to-back seasons since Dorsett — and ending with aspirations of a championship campaign.

That was the focus for Dorsett, who rushed for a game-high 142 yards and was joined by running back Elliott Walker (123) and quarterback Robert Haygood (101) in setting an NCAA bowl record that still stands. The Panthers followed their Sun Bowl success with an undefeated season that culminated with a 27-3 victory over Georgia in the Sugar Bowl.

"The only thing I cared about was winning that game and setting ourselves up for '76 season," Dorsett said. "It's good to be part of building something. I wanted to come back to help these guys accomplish what we wanted - that was the national championship. We said, 'Before we leave this place, we're going to win a national championship.'

"To see it come to fruition, it was the epitome of teamwork."

That was a lesson junior tight end John Pelusi learned from none other than his father, John, the starting center and captain of Pitt's '76 national champions. After Pitt clinched its Sun Bowl berth with a 34-10 victory at Connecticut in the season finale, the elder Pelusi shared his experience at the tradition-laden bowl and the possibility of the son following suit.

"Until that point, I had not known, so it is special to have that," the younger Pelusi said. "I hope this is a steppingstone for us. It's been a long road to get where we are now. Hopefully, we can better ourselves for next year.

"It's going in the right direction."

Van Pelt felt the same going into the '89 game, then sponsored by John Hancock. The Panthers had fired coach Mike Gottfried late in the season, and announced the hiring of offensive coordinator Paul Hackett as head coach just before kickoff. Van Pelt had passed for 2,881 yards and 17 touchdowns as a redshirt freshman and was anticipating the continuity.

"It was very well received at the time," Van Pelt said. "Here was a guy who took a green quarterback and broke some school records for a freshman. I was excited for him, after getting to know him personally in the QB room.

"A couple of us had mentioned to the athletic director (Ed Bozik) that if we could get him to be head coach, we'd be all for it as players. After they made that announcement, it fired everybody up. I don't think it caught anybody by surprise. Reflecting back on it, it was good timing the way it happened."

The Panthers beat favored Texas A&M by compiling a John Hancock Bowl-record 530 yards with a fourth-quarter comeback led by Van Pelt, who threw a 44-yard touchdown pass to Henry Tuten with 2:19 remaining.

Van Pelt would pass for 11,267 career yards, breaking Dan Marino's school record, but never reached another bowl game. Hackett was fired during the 1992 season, after going 13-21-1. To this day, the downward spiral that plagued the Panthers still bothers Van Pelt.

"It was definitely disappointing. One of the things you talk about now when you reflect on your career is that it was the only bowl game I played in," Van Pelt said. "We had talent. For whatever reason, we couldn't find a way to put it together. A lot of that haunts me at night. All the passing yards, I'd trade it all in for a successful year."

Now quarterbacks coach for the NFL's Buffalo Bills, Van Pelt said he still follows Pitt closely and believes the Panthers are bound for better things.

"I think they're definitely headed in the right direction," Van Pelt said. "I like to hope, as a Pitt fan, that they're taking the direction of the '75 team and not the '89 team. I really do think they can do something special there."

Dorsett also envisions the Panthers making a monumental move next season, noting that Pitt's four-year record (22-23-1) before its national championship team isn't much different than Pitt's four years under Wannstedt (25-22).

"Everybody," Dorsett said, "is expecting big things of them."

Even if the current Panthers aren't altogether aware of Pitt's Sun Bowl history, they realize that it can be the start of something special, just like their 13-9 victory in the 100th Backyard Brawl was last December.

"A win in a bowl game like this will give us a spark for next season, the way our West Virginia win last year set us up in the right direction for this season," McCoy said. "This game will be big for us."

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