NCF Nation: Bearcats-Panthers 120509

Pitt falls just short of its goals

December, 5, 2009
PITTSBURGH -- The body language from Jabaal Sheard and Greg Romeus told the story.

After Cincinnati scored with 33 seconds left to take a 45-44 lead, Pittsburgh's two star defensive ends wore a look of utter shock as they made a slow trudge off the field. Perhaps it hit them then how coming so close had sent them so far away from their goals.

Instead of winning the Big East and the league's BCS bid, the Panthers (9-3, 5-2 Big East) now are likely headed to the Bowl in Birmingham. Just two weeks ago, they were 9-1 and in the Top 10. But they finished with two straight, last-minute defeats and now sport the same record as last year's team.

"I thought this year was an improvement, but we just came up short in the end," defensive tackle Mick Williams said. "Sorry to the city and the fans."

Head coach Dave Wannstedt tried to look on the positive side and the big picture.
[+] EnlargeDave Wannstedt
Jared Wickerham/Getty ImagesDave Wannstedt and Pitt had everything going in the first half.

"We're close," he said. "We're a lot closer than we were a year ago. We're light years from where we were four years ago. It's important to keep recruiting and keep building."

But this was a great opportunity wasted. Pitt is, in many people's opinion, the most purely talented team in the league. Their veteran offensive and defensive lines can stack up with anybody. They led Cincinnati 31-10 in the first at home. They were also up 38-24 in the fourth quarter and scored to take the lead again with 1:36 left.

Perhaps the cruelest part is that a missed extra point made a huge difference in the end. Holder Andrew Janocko appeared to bobble the snap, which prevented a kick try. Given the crack in the door, Cincinnati busted through with a 63-second scoring drive and winning extra point.

"I told [Janocko] after the game that it wasn't one play," Wannstedt said. "Everybody in that room could have done something during the course of the game to make it different. He's been outstanding for us for two years."

Many parts of the game will be debated around Pittsburgh for a long time to come, like why the team kept kicking to Mardy Gilyard, why the offense went away from the running game in the third quarter and why some costly personal fouls were committed (and called). Pitt fans will wonder when this program will ever win a championship under Wannstedt.

That talk shouldn't overshadow the incredible performance by freshman running back Dion Lewis. He broke a school record with 47 carries, gaining 194 yards and three touchdowns.

"Dion is the best," Wannstedt said. "It's amazing for a freshman, 12 weeks into the season, to show up like he did today and perform at that level."

Unfortunately for the Panthers, they came up just short of matching Cincinnati's level. And a long fall down from what they aspired was the end result.

Pike peaks at right time for Bearcats

December, 5, 2009
PITTSBURGH -- While last year's Orange Bowl appearance represented the high-water mark for the Cincinnati program, the game marked the low point in quarterback Tony Pike's career.

Pike threw four interceptions in that loss to Virginia Tech. People wondered why coach Brian Kelly didn't pull his struggling starter for Dustin Grutza. Kelly did, however, question Pike's maturity and toughness this summer by pointing back to that game.

On Saturday, in the Bearcats' biggest game since that night in Miami, Pike seemed to be reliving the same nightmare. Through three quarters, he was just 11-for-29 for 174 yards and three interceptions at Pittsburgh, with the Big East title and an undefeated season slipping away.
[+] EnlargeTony Pike
Andrew Weber/US PresswireTony Pike's 29-yard touchdown pass lifted Cincinnati past Pittsburgh to secure a BCS berth and their second straight Big East title.

After his third pick, an ugly underthrown ball that doubled his season total for interceptions coming into the day, Pike grabbed his helmet in frustration and disbelief. Kelly said something to him on the sideline, and backup Zach Collaros began warming up in earnest. Collaros had played so well while Pike was injured in October and November that some questioned why he didn't keep the job permanently.

Kelly could have made the switch right then, and everyone would have understood. Instead, he stuck with Pike again. This time, it worked as Pike threw two fourth-quarter touchdowns -- including the game-winner with 33 seconds left -- in a 45-44 victory.

Kelly said it wouldn't have been possible if not for the experience last year in Miami.

"He made some of the same mistakes as he did in the Orange Bowl, but today he fought through it," Kelly said. "The Orange Bowl came back to help us."

Pike said the message from Kelly after that third interception was, "You're my guy."

"I feel like coach Kelly has a lot of faith in me," he said.

The senior went 11-for-15 for 128 yards in the fourth quarter. His final drive was the stuff of future lore.

Cincinnati took over at its 39, trailing by six with 1:36 to go. Pike needed just 63 seconds to complete four passes, the last of which hit a stretched-out Armon Binns in the corner of the end zone for a 29-yard score.

"That pass was something I missed two or three times in the game," Pike said. "The defense came up and basically said it was going to go man-to-man. I don't think any team in the country can man up on our receivers. This time, it was Armon who had man coverage, so I looked the safety off a little bit and came back to Armon."

That simple decision is what Pike lacked earlier in the game. He was getting pressured heavily by the Pitt defensive line in the first half. His receivers also had some drops and missteps. But Pike also admitted he tried to go for the big play a few too many times. Not until the team was in full fourth-quarter comeback mode did he settle down.

"In the beginning, I tried to force too many things," he said. "Once you get into the two-minute drill, you forget about thinking. You just go out there and make your reads.

"It's funny how you can go 11-0 and play so well, and the whole season comes down to a minute and 30 [seconds]."

Cincinnati is glad it kept Pike in control of that situation.

Cincinnati puts another title on ice

December, 5, 2009
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."
[+] EnlargeMardy Gilyard
Andrew Weber/US PresswireThe Bearcats' Mardy Gilyard caught five passes for 118 yards and a touchdown. He also racked up 256 kickoff return yards.

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.

Bearcats win the Big East

December, 5, 2009
PITTSBURGH -- In a wild game befitting of the circumstances, Cincinnati emerged as the Big East champion with a 45-44 win.

Cincinnati trailed Pitt 31-10 in the second quarter and 38-24 in the fourth quarter but tied it up with 5:46 left.

The Bearcats are likely going to the Sugar Bowl to play the loser of tonight's SEC championship game.

Cincinnati ties it up at 38

December, 5, 2009
PITTSBURGH -- What an amazing game, and totally what you'd expect for a championship duel.

Cincinnati refuses to go down, despite trailing nearly the entire way. The Bearcats were down 31-10 in the first half and 38-24 in the fourth quarter but just scored a second straight touchdown. Zach Collaros finally came in, just for the goal line series, and handed off to Isaiah Pead for the touchdown. The Bearcats, who missed an extra point on the previous touchdown, got the two-point conversion to tie it.

Pitt has only one touchdown since halftime as the offense has bogged down. If the Panthers can't hold on, this will end up as one of the more painful losses in school history. It will be the difference between the Sugar Bowl and maybe the Bowl.
PITTSBURGH -- For some unknown reason, Pitt went away from Dion Lewis in the third quarter, as he got only five carries.

But after Bill Stull threw his second interception of the game -- what's up with turnovers between these normally mistake-free teams? -- Pitt's defense got a key stop. And then Lewis got the call to bring it home. He ran for his second touchdown -- on his 38th carry of the game -- and Pitt is back up by two scores, 38-24.

Thirty-eight carries for a true freshman. Wow. Just keep feeding Lewis. That's pretty much all Pitt should do the rest of the game.

Bearcats back in it

December, 5, 2009
PITTSBURGH -- Tony Pike didn't get benched after all, and it turned out to be a good decision.

Pike connected with Mardy Gilyard for a 68-yard touchdown bomb to make it 31-24. Pitt's defensive backs got turned around and couldn't catch up with Gilyard, who made a terrific adjustment on the ball.

Even more impressive is the adjustment Cincinnati has made defensively, stopping Pittsburgh on each of its first two possessions. Don't write the obituary yet for the defending Big East champs. Pitt is going to need to keep scoring to win this game.

Pike suffering through worst day

December, 5, 2009
PITTSBURGH -- Cincinnati got a stop on the first series of the second half and had a chance to make this thing mighty interesting.

But quarterback Tony Pike is having a miserable day. He's just 8-of-24 with two interceptions. He just got sacked for the first time today and had to fall on a bobbled snap.

Zach Collaros is warming up. Looks like Pike will get lifted on the next series. Brian Kelly can't wait any longer to try something different. Can Collaros slow down the Pitt pass rush with his running ability?
PITTSBURGH -- Quick review of the first half at Heinz Field, where No. 15 Pittsburgh leads No. 5 Cincinnati 31-17:

[+] EnlargeJonathan Baldwin
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicJonathan Baldwin had two touchdown catches in the first half.
Best player in the half: Pitt's Dion Lewis has cemented his status as the Big East offensive player of the year. The Panthers gave Cincinnati a heavy dose of the running back in the first half, as Lewis carried 29 times for 108 yards and added three catches for 23 yards. Lewis has plenty of room to run behind his offensive line, which has overpowered the Bearcats' defense.

Turning point: Two big mistakes -- which Cincinnati has avoided all year -- turned into 10 points for Pittsburgh. Tony Pike threw a second-quarter interception, just his fourth of the year -- which led to a Dan Hutchins field goal. On the Bearcats' next possession, Nate Nix blocked a punt that ended up inside the Cincinnati 5. Bill Stull ran it in for a touchdown, making it 31-10 late in the half.

What Pitt needs to do: More of the same. The Panthers are dominating on both sides of the ball and would be up by 21 points if not for Mardy Gilyard's 99-yard touchdown return. Pitt needs to stay aggressive and not sit on the lead, because the Bearcats' offense is too explosive.

What Cincinnati needs to do: Reboot. The defensive game plan is not working at all. Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco needs to find something to counter the running of Lewis, and the Cincinnati offensive line has to do a better job of protecting Pike. The Bearcats have not trailed in the second half all season, so we'll see what they're made of today.

Gilyard gives Bearcats hope

December, 5, 2009
PITTSBURGH -- Crazy finish to the first half.

Just when Cincinnati's season looked its bleakest, Mardy Gilyard came to the rescue.

The Bearcats star returned a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown after Pitt had taken a 31-10 lead with a little more than a minute remaining in the half.

It's the second straight week for a kickoff return score for Gilyard, who's also run a punt back for a touchdown this year. He now has four career kickoff returns for touchdowns, a school record.

And then Cincinnati got a stop, a punt and a personal foul penalty to take over at the Pitt 35 with more than 40 seconds left. But Tony Pike threw his second interception of the half, this time to Elijah Fields. Pitt's Bill Stull gave it right back by tossing a pick on the very next play.

The Bearcats tried a 55-yard field goal at the end of the half, but Jake Rogers' attempt came up way short.

All in all, Cincinnati is lucky to be down only 14 points, given how many mistakes it has made. An extra score there at the end of the half would have been very helpful, though.
PITTSBURGH -- All season long, Cincinnati has avoided the big mistake. Not today.

The Bearcats came into the game with the fewest turnovers in the nation. But Tony Pike has thrown a pick, and Pitt just blocked a punt and recovered inside the Bearcats 5-yard line.

Barring a miraculous comeback, this game is essentially over. The Panthers lead 31-10 in a stunning domination over the No. 5 team in the country.

Some may ask if Cincinnati was distracted this week by the Notre Dame rumors. I don't think so. I think it's just that Pitt is so much better on both lines and is simply enforcing its will. The Bearcats offense is out of sync because of the pressure up front, and Dion Lewis is running wild with huge lanes into the second level of the defense.

Never count the Cincinnati offense out, even down by 21. But if I'm a Pitt fan, I'm already checking hotel rates in New Orleans.

Dream start for Pitt, Lewis

December, 5, 2009
PITTSBURGH -- This is exactly how Pitt would have drawn it up to start this game.

First, the Panthers got a rare three-and-out from Cincinnati on the opening series. The Pitt defensive line got great pressure on Tony Pike on two of those plays, forcing incompletions. Pike was hit by Greg Romeus on third-and-10.

Then even more impressively, the Panthers took the ball and drove the ball 56 yards for a touchdown. They did it in 12 plays, 11 of which were Dion Lewis runs. The other? A Lewis reception.

The Pitt O-line simply dominated Cincinnati. The Bearcats have major issues in the trenches on both sides right now.

'The Big East championship game'

December, 5, 2009
PITTSBURGH -- If there was any doubt how big this game is, referee Gerald McGinn let everybody know during the coin toss.

Before the flip, McGinn greeted captains from both teams at midfield and said, "Gentlemen, welcome to the Big East championship game."

So I guess we can officially call it that now, huh?

Cincinnati-Pitt pre-game ponderables

December, 5, 2009
PITTSBURGH -- The snow has really picked up here at Heinz Field, but again, it's not accumulating on the field. It shouldn't have too much of an effect on the game.

Pitt corner Aaron Berry looks fine in warm-ups. He missed the West Virginia game with a shoulder injury and is vitally important to the Panthers' chances of slowing down the Cincinnati passing attack. Expect to see a lot of Elijah Fields in the nickel package as well.

There's a palpable buzz in the stadium, which isn't always the case here, especially for noon games. Should be a great atmosphere appropriate for this game.

Some other notes to consider, courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information:
  • Since Brian Kelly became head coach, Cincinnati is 32-0 when leading going into the fourth quarter.
  • Seemingly no third down is too long for Cincinnati to convert. The Bearcats lead the nation by averaging 8.25 yards per play on third downs this season.
  • Pitt has been one of the most productive teams on first downs this season, averaging over seven yards per play.

Extra motivation for Cincinnati?

December, 5, 2009
PITTSBURGH -- Cincinnati doesn't need much extra motivation today, not with a 12-0 record, Big East championship and possible BCS title game appearance on the line.

But to hear tight end Ben Guidugli talk this week, it sounds like the Bearcats have a little something else driving them against Pitt today. The Panthers, and not the defending champion Bearcats, were picked to win the league in the preseason.

"Pitt gets a lot of hype every year, I feel like," Guidugli said. "A lot of people always pick them to win the conference. They're never going to pick us. It's always going to be Pitt or West Virginia.

"We just like to prove we've got players on this team, too, whether they've got all the higher-ranked recruits or whatever. We just want to go play."

That's one thing to remember about this Cincinnati team. Yes, the players have had several distractions this week, including the Brian Kelly/Notre Dame rumors. But this is also a team full of hungry players, many of whom weren't heavily recruited and many who've waited until their senior year to get significant playing time. They still play with a chip on their shoulders.

Saw a lot of Bearcats fans in and around town last night and this morning. Pitt fans are fired up, too, though. The tailgating was in full force by 9 a.m., even with the cold temperatures, and the students were lined up to rush into their seats as soon as possible.

Less than an hour away from kickoff now.