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Starkey: Pitt perseveres

| Sunday, Oct. 11, 2009

Before every game, Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt writes the same three statements on the locker-room grease board:

• "It's a 15-round fight."

• "Win the turnover battle."

• "Winners handle the ups and downs in every game."

Nothing terribly original there, but that last one could double as the storyline from Pitt's 24-21 victory over Connecticut on Saturday.

The Panthers trailed, 21-6, with 3:56 left in third quarter. If you pressed your fingers to the keyboard hard enough, you could practically feel the heat rising from the message boards.

This would have been a crushing loss. Maybe a season-breaker.

Instead, it became the biggest comeback win of Wannstedt's five-year tenure.

Credit the players' character, more than anything, for the comeback. On both sides of the ball, Pitt players rebounded from potentially devastating plays to make critical ones.

If one snapshot could reflect the spirit of the win, it was this: Defensive tackle Mick Williams greeted quarterback Bill Stull on the sidelines and offered strong words of encouragement after Stull was picked off for a touchdown on Pitt's first series of the second half.

Stull came back to make several clutch throws. Two that stood out were a fourth-and-3 conversion to tight end Nate Byham on Pitt's tying drive in the fourth quarter, and the two-point conversion that made it 21-21 with 7:35 left.

On the latter, Stull rolled right and found a secondary target, Cedric McGee, in the back of the end zone.

"As a quarterback, you have to have confidence and understand that you're going to have ups and downs," said Stull, who withstood home-crowd boos for the second time this season.

Scenes like the Williams-Stull exchange happened a lot when things were going bad.

To hear linebacker Adam Gunn tell it, "the whole team" tended to defensive back Ricky Gary after he was burned for a 79-yard touchdown pass in the first half.

"I told him: 'One play doesn't define who you are or who we are,'" Gunn said.

Gary was solid thereafter, including a pass break-up that forced a punt.

Freshman tailback Dion Lewis redeemed himself in a big way after he dropped what should have been a 43-yard touchdown pass on Pitt's first drive. Lewis couldn't break free the rest of the half but busted out with 136 second-half yards, including a couple of runs that Barry Sanders would be proud to call his own.

"That play could have changed the whole outcome," Lewis said of his drop. "I told myself: 'You messed up, and you have to make up for it; make sure your teammates know they can trust you.' "

Now, before we go hog wild over this victory, let's remember something else Wannstedt said, after the game: His team didn't play all that well.

It might also be instructive to note that UConn is highly average. This is the same team that blew a 10-point fourth-quarter lead to North Carolina earlier this season.

Meanwhile, Pitt (5-1, 2-0) remains very much a mystery halfway into its season. The offense looks way more potent than I expected; the defense looks more vulnerable.

Only this much seems certain: Like last year, when it had five fourth-quarter comeback victories, Pitt is made of the right stuff.

It can handle the ups and downs.

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