Pittsburgh Panthers season recap

The view on Pittsburgh has changed drastically since Thanksgiving.

On Turkey Day, the Panthers stood at 9-1, were ranked in the Top 10 and had a Big East title in their sights. The next night, they got upended by a last-second field goal at West Virginia. And then the following week, they lost a heart-wrenching 45-44 shootout to Cincinnati with the BCS bid on the line.

What looked like a season for the ages instead turned into a 9-3 campaign -- the same record Pitt finished with in 2008. Two close losses shouldn't totally obscure what the program accomplished in the regular season, however.

New offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti Jr. helped turn Bill Stull into more than just a serviceable quarterback; his improved decision-making actually made Stull one of the best in the Big East. Cignetti also found a way to make talented-but-often-ignored senior Dorin Dickerson into one of the nation's top pass-catching tight ends, while receiver Jonathan Baldwin took another step toward superstardom. And of course, true freshman Dion Lewis wowed everybody with his huge year at tailback.

Defensively, the Pitt defense tightened up after a disheartening early-season loss to NC State. The defensive line was the best in the league, and the linebackers and secondary covered up their mistakes. The Panthers looked dominant at times, giving fans reason to believe that the program had regained its old prominence.

Unfortunately, the last two weeks may be what people remember about this season.

Offensive MVP: Lewis. Stull, Baldwin and Dickerson were great, as was the offensive line. But Lewis made it all work with his 1,640 yards and 16 touchdowns.

Defensive MVP: Mick Williams. The defensive tackle was the leader of a stalwart line, registering 15 tackles for loss.

Turning point: The Panthers led Cincinnati 31-10 late in the first half on Dec. 5, so close to the Big East trophy that they could almost touch it. Then Mardy Gilyard returned a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown, and the fight was back on. It was a fight Pitt would lose in a painful manner.

What's next: Pitt can regain some goodwill by beating North Carolina in the Meineke Car Care Bowl to get their 10th win. As for next year, coach Dave Wannstedt will have to find a replacement at quarterback for Stull -- likely Tino Sunseri. And Pitt will lose the majority of its two lines, which was where the team's true strength lay. Still, Lewis and Baldwin will return, and Wannstedt has recruited so well that there will be enough talent on the roster to compete for the league championship again in 2010.