Football: Lewis leads Panthers to win in Big East finale

By Brody Engelhard

Dion Lewis provided something Saturday against Cincinnati that the Panther football team has… Dion Lewis provided something Saturday against Cincinnati that the Panther football team has been looking for all year. A preseason All-American, Lewis has struggled with injuries and has not performed at the same level as last year, when he produced nearly 1,800 yards on the ground.

Although Lewis had a considerably disappointing 2010 campaign — with less than half of the yards he produced a year before — it didn’t stop him from having a career day against the Bearcats to close out the regular season.

Lewis rushed for a career-high 261 yards while scoring four touchdowns at the snow-covered Nippert Stadium as the Panthers beat the Bearcats 28-10.

The win snaps a two-game skid against the Bearcats — in the previous  two years, Pitt lost to Cincinnati with Big East title implications on the line.

With Saturday’s win, Pitt earned part of a three-way tie for the Big East Championship.

It was only the third time this year Lewis has gone for more than 100 yards, and only the second time with multiple touchdowns. Lewis has 2,755 career yards and is now second among Pitt sophomore running backs behind only LeSean McCoy, now of the Philadelphia Eagles.

“We got Dion [Lewis] rolling today. We felt the conditions gave us reason to lean that way because of the snow and ice,” Pitt head coach Dave Wannstedt said after the game. “He responded, and it wasn’t easy, but it was great to see him finish up the year with that type of performance.”

Fellow running back Ray Graham saw limited minutes because of an injury and only received one carry for 7 yards. Lewis became more of a feature back with his increased workload of 42 carries.

“I love Ray [Graham], and he was a little banged up this week, but he was anxious to go. We went into this game, and we weren’t sure how much Ray was going to play, and I told Dion to get ready for 35 carries,” Wannstedt said in a news conference. “I think that sometimes when a player goes into a game knowing that there’s no turning back, and he knows that he is the guy, sometimes you approach it a little differently.”

The first quarter was capped off with a Lewis touchdown from two yards out, and the second quarter started with a 76-yard scoring run by Lewis.

It was never really close after that. The Bearcats struggled to contain the run, and Lewis made them pay as the Panthers’ offense racked up 430 yards of offense for the day. Pitt won the time of possession by 11 minutes, and was 9-16 on third down.

Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri was efficient despite the unfriendly throwing conditions. He completed 14-of-23 for 158 yards with no touchdowns and one interception. It was his counterpart, Cincinnati quarterback Zach Collaros, who really struggled, throwing one touchdown with three interceptions going 12-of-24 for 109 yards.

“There is no secret. You win football games by stopping the run and getting off the field on defense. You can’t turn the football over on offense,” Cincinnati head coach Butch Jones said after the game. “Obviously, they won the battle up-front and they were able to run the football.”

Although Pitt pulled into the three-way tie for the Big East Championship alongside Connecticut and West Virginia, the Panthers lost out on the Big East BCS Bid because they lost to both the Huskies and the Mountaineers.

Connecticut, who won the Big East via tiebreaker, is set to face Oklahoma — the Big 12 Champion — in the Fiesta Bowl. Pitt will take on Kentucky in the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham, Ala., on Jan. 8.

“But the bottom line, end of the day, there wasn’t talk about getting a Big East trophy, there wasn’t any talk about getting a ring, there wasn’t any talk about getting revenge on Cincinnati,” Wannstedt said. “It was really focused on us winning, and ending the regular season feeling good about our football team.”