Football: Panthers fall short late in the season yet again

By Alex Oltmanns

Win and you’re in.

That’s been the case for the Pitt football team the past three seasons… Win and you’re in.

That’s been the case for the Pitt football team the past three seasons when it came to winning the Big East Championship and going to a BCS bowl game.

In each season they controlled their own destiny to win the league title, but a late slip-up either prevented that from happening or, as is the case this year, put their title hopes pretty much out of reach.

Though the Panthers can still sneak into a BCS game this year, a berth is highly unlikely. After losing to West Virginia 35-10 on Friday afternoon, Pitt will have to win against Cincinnati and hope West Virginia and Connecticut both lose in their season finales.

“It’s very disappointing because we felt like the last three seasons, that we controlled our own destiny and we let it slip away,” junior defensive tackle Chas Alecxih said after the game.

Two years ago, the Panthers traveled to Cincinnati where a win against the Bearcats and in their next two Big East games would’ve given them the Big East Championship, but it didn’t happen.

Last year, the Panthers tried to return the favor to Cincinnati by beating them in a winner-takes-all game in the regular season finale, but lost in a narrow 45-44 defeat.

Then came this season, in which the Panthers shot out to a two-game conference lead with just four games left, but after a loss to Connecticut and Friday’s loss to the Mountaineers, a championship seems almost unattainable.

“Obviously, it’s disappointing. We just didn’t make enough plays,” Pitt head coach Dave Wannstedt. “We didn’t make enough plays on defense. We gave up way too many plays on offense from a turnover standpoint.”

The Panthers committed four costly turnovers against WVU, miscues that allowed the Mountaineers to leave Pittsburgh with a blowout win despite being outgained in total yardage 362-360.

“Ray Graham’s fumble, I thought, happened when he was spinning. Dion Lewis’ fumble, he was kind of climbing over the top and laying on a body,” Wannstedt said. “He thought he was down, he wasn’t. Were they stripping the ball more than anyone else? I’d say no. We didn’t protect the ball well enough.”

The turnovers, along with several untimely big plays allowed by the Pitt defense, like Tavon Austin’s 71-yard touchdown reception on WVU’s first drive of the second half, did the Panthers in.

The defeat gave the Panthers their fifth loss of the season, a season where expectations abounded as they were ranked in the preseason top 20. It also was the last home game for Pitt’s 11 seniors who still haven’t achieved the goal of winning the Big East crown.

“I really can’t put the game into words,” Alecxih said. “I feel the worst for the seniors because I felt like I let them down.”

One of those seniors, captain Jabaal Sheard, summed it up shortly after the game.

“We just fell short the last three years,” he said.