PITTSBURGH -- As Cincinnati went through pregame warmups under falling snow at Heinz Field, receiver/kick returner Mardy Gilyard tried to warm his teammates' spirits by telling everybody, "Hey, we're on the beach."
But with 1:26 left to go before halftime, the beach -- where the Bearcats frolicked last year during Orange Bowl week -- seemed awfully far away. Pittsburgh's dominating running game and pass rush had caused things to snowball against Cincinnati, which found itself trailing 31-10. Even Gilyard, ever the optimist, admitted that "it started to get real cold."
That's when the rest of the team turned to Gilyard for some heat. Running back John Goebel, several defensive players and even head coach Brian Kelly grabbed him on the sideline. We need something on this kickoff, they implored.
"I prayed that I could take one back," Gilyard said. "And then everything parted like the Red Sea."
Gilyard's 99-yard return for a touchdown finally gave Cincinnati some life, and the defending Big East champions refused to die the rest of the way. Despite trailing by two touchdowns early in the fourth quarter, the No. 5 Bearcats rallied to win 45-44 thanks to Pitt's late missed extra point and a 29-yard touchdown pass from Tony Pike to Armon Binns with 33 seconds left.
"Our guys are resilient," Kelly said. "Our guys believe, I believe in them, and you've got to have that belief. We've won 18 consecutive regular-season games. Don't count us out."
But is it enough to count the 12-0 Bearcats into the BCS title game? Barring a loss by Texas in the Big 12 title game later Saturday night, Cincinnati will join the 2004 Auburn squad as the only BCS conference teams to go undefeated and not play for the national title in the BCS era. Even a Texas loss might not do it, as Cincinnati would still have to climb past undefeated and No. 4 TCU.
Kelly said he didn't think his team deserved to get into the BCS title game ahead of Texas, but that it should go instead of TCU with a Longhorns' loss. Cincinnati players said they feel they've done enough to play for a national championship. And so, apparently, does Pitt receiver Jonathan Baldwin, who interrupted the Cincinnati postgame news conference to shout, "Good job. Now go win the championship."
"We did our part," senior safety Aaron Webster said. "Now it's in other people's hands."
Big East commissioner John Marinatto, who attended Saturday's game, said the league "strongly believes Cincinnati should be in the championship game" and that any undefeated BCS conference team deserves that privilege. However, Marinatto is not a playoff advocate and did not sound like someone ready to promote sweeping change.
"We recognize as a group the system is not perfect," he said. "At our annual meetings, we'll get together and talk about whether anything needs to be changed."
In order to even make this debate relevant, Cincinnati had to make a lot of changes defensively on Saturday.
Pittsburgh (9-3) scored on each of its first five possessions. Freshman sensation Dion Lewis carried 29 times for 108 yards in the first half alone as the Panthers' offensive line obliterated the Bearcats defense. Cincinnati looked like toast.
Pitt scored only twice after halftime, though, as Lewis -- who finished with a school-record 47 carries for 194 yards and three scores -- had to work a little harder. The defense incorporated more run blitzing, often bringing Andre Revels or J.K. Schaffer to the point of attack to shore up its deficiencies.
"We came in as a defense at halftime and said, 'We just have to tackle him,'" Webster said. "'Don't try to get the big hit, because he'll just dribble out of them. Just tackle and play the next down.'"
A few stops were all the Bearcats' offense needed. They scored three touchdowns in the final 11:09. When Pitt missed the extra point after a Lewis score with 1:36 left, Kelly had one thought: "Cool."
"I was like, man, they're going to give us a shot here," he said.
But Kelly said the comeback would not have been possible without Gilyard's first-half kickoff return. The team often follows his exuberant personality, and Gilyard has had the uncanny ability the past two seasons of coming up with a huge play when the Bearcats need it the most. That's one big reason why the Bearcats are back-to-back Big East champions.
"I'm a praying man, and God is good," Gilyard said.
In other words, for Cincinnati, life's a beach.