Pinstripe Bowl debacle doesn’t detract from Pitt’s historic season


TPN file photo

Quadree Henderson kneels on the Yankee Stadium field during the 2016 New Era Pinstripe Bowl — Pitt’s last bowl game appearance, which ended in a 31-24 loss to Northwestern.

Going into last week’s New Era Pinstripe Bowl matchup against Northwestern, the Pitt football team talked about the importance of ending the season by picking up that elusive ninth win.

Pitt came up just short in a 31-24 loss to the Wildcats in New York City, thanks to a combination of costly turnovers and crippling injuries to star players. But the truth is, the Panthers didn’t need to beat Northwestern to validate their season as a success.

Pitt wound up with an identical 8-5 record to Pat Narduzzi’s debut season as head coach in 2015, but not all eight-win seasons are created equal.

For starters, the Panthers faced the 17th-toughest schedule in the country in 2016 after competing against the nation’s 52nd-toughest schedule a year ago. But it’s not just about who they played — it’s who they beat that makes this season so impressive.

This isn’t to detract from the accomplishments of last year’s players, because the teams were pretty close in terms of talent and overall performance. The 2015 Panthers cracked the Associated Press Top 25 poll, sliding in at No. 25 for a week, and all five losses came to quality opponents: Navy, Miami, North Carolina, Notre Dame and Iowa.

Meanwhile, this year’s Pitt team entered the rankings at No. 24 after its regular season finale, then rose to No. 22 in the AP poll in the final regular season poll. The loss to Northwestern will almost certainly drop the Panthers from the end-of-season rankings, which will be revealed after the national championship game on Jan. 9. But that doesn’t take away from what this team has accomplished.

After a dramatic 42-39 victory Sept. 10 over the Penn State Nittany Lions in the first game in 16 years between the two in-state rivals, Pitt seemed destined for a special season — possibly even a run at its goal of winning a Coastal Division title.

Then, the Panthers lost on the road to Oklahoma State and North Carolina in back-to-back weeks. They returned home at 2-2 knowing they were just a play or two from being undefeated but still had a chance to win the division. They just couldn’t afford any mistakes.

Pitt escaped closer-than-expected matchups against Marshall and Virginia sandwiched around a 37-34 Homecoming victory over Georgia Tech on Oct. 8. Then, No. 25 Virginia Tech came to town for a Thursday night showdown on ESPN with first place ranking in the ACC Coastal Division on the line.

The Hokies eked out a 39-36 victory, and Pitt’s chances of making it to the ACC Championship dwindled. A 51-28 beatdown against Miami the next week dropped the Panthers to 5-4 and officially put an end to their division title hopes.

The Panthers had gone from Coastal Division contenders to a team in danger of missing out on the postseason entirely. With a matchup looming in Death Valley against the undefeated Clemson Tigers, a three-game losing streak and a .500 record seemed imminent for Pitt, maybe even inevitable.

Yet, on Nov. 12 in Clemson, South Carolina, the “Little Panthers” — as Narduzzi affectionately referred to them after the game — knocked off the mighty Tigers, 43-42, in one of the most thrilling games of the college football season.

Pitt’s win ended Clemson’s 21-game winning streak at Clemson Memorial Stadium, the longest home winning streak in the nation. It also made the Panthers the only team with two wins over teams ranked in the top five of the final College Football Playoff rankings.

With the win, they dramatically altered the college football landscape and shook up the national rankings. And, in the process, they saved their season.

Pitt went on to blow out the Duke Blue Devils, 56-14, then outscored the Syracuse Orange, 76-61, in the highest-scoring game in major college football history in its regular season finale. That record-setting win gave the Panthers a three-game winning streak, 8-4 record and a Top-25 ranking to end the regular season.

The season may not have ended the way Pitt hoped, but it still showed plenty of promise for the future while giving fans lifetime memories.

Sure, the Panthers lost by a touchdown to Northwestern while injury claimed several of their best players and team leaders during the game. Sure, they didn’t achieve their goal of winning the Coastal Division title. Sure, they didn’t get that first nine-win season since 2009.

But none of that really matters, because these Panthers will always have those wins over Clemson and Penn State. When people will look back on the 2016 season, they’ll remember two things — two scores, really.

43-42 and 42-39, forever etched in Panthers lore.