Football: In final home game, seniors find disappointment in loss to Cincinnati

By Jay Huerbin

As the final seconds ran off of the game clock, Cincinnati quarterback Tony Pike took the ball… As the final seconds ran off of the game clock, Cincinnati quarterback Tony Pike took the ball and turned to the center of Heinz Field. There, he joined his teammates and coaches in celebration.

His Bearcats just completed a 21-point comeback against Pitt, winning 45-44, and secured the Big East title.

Pike threw the winning touchdown pass with just 33 seconds left in the game.

But for the Panthers, it was a game they could have won. After losing the title to Cincinnati last year, it was Pitt’s turn to win the conference.

A win would earn Pitt an automatic bid to a BCS bowl game, marking a revival for the Pitt football program.

With such an important game separated by just one point, a loss like the one on Saturday takes its toll on players. Just ask senior tight end Nate Byham. It was his last home game in a Panthers uniform.

“Five years ago, I told myself I’m coming to Pitt because I want to win a Big East championship. I wanted to be part of something special,” he said. “It makes me sick to my stomach to know that we lost two straight. People say, ‘Hold your head up high. You played a good game. You’re still 9-3.’ That’s not what we want to be. We want to be champions. Nobody remembers the teams that are 9-3. They remember the champions.”

Byham, who caught one pass for 6 yards against the Bearcats, wasn’t the only vocal Panther.

Senior nose tackle Gus Mustakas was on the field as Pike took a knee, letting the clock run out to win the game. Instead of walking off the field and into the locker room, Mustakas stayed on the field, stunned that his team let such a big opportunity slip away from them.

“I don’t even know why I did it,” Mustakas said about his decision to watch as Cincinnati (12-0) players celebrated on his field. “I was just stuck out there and watching them.”

Senior John Malecki echoed similar statements from his teammates.

“I don’t know what else would be more disappointing than losing by a point,” the offensive lineman said.

Malecki and the rest of the Pitt seniors were honored before the game. Quarterback Bill Stull, who at times this season was among the nation’s top five players in pass efficiency, earned a standing ovation when his name was announced over the PA system. That’s something that would have been unheard of at the beginning of the season.

But Stull quickly turned his game and approach to the season around, which makes the loss even harder for the hometown kid who just played his last game in uniform in Pittsburgh.

“This is tough. All the hard work we put in this, all the things this team has gone through and myself, all the things I’ve gone through. It’s a team game, and this one is tough to swallow,” Stull said.

It was an emotional game for Stull and he let it known while answering questions during the post-game press conference.

“Mick,” Stull said, interrupting his response to the loss, “you don’t know how much I love you.”

Stull was speaking to another senior, defensive end Mick Williams, who left the press area and headed back to the locker room.

But for Byham, Mustakas, Malecki, Stull and Williams — and the 13 other seniors who played their last home game on Saturday — they have to get the younger players prepared for an upcoming bowl game and the next year of Pitt football.

“We put our hearts out there today,” Byham said of the seniors. “The young players need to see this and follow in our shoes, because we have the talent and the best coaches. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t win the Big East next year.”

Malecki agreed.

“It’s going to reflect our leadership on the team,” Malecki said. “Guys like Mick Williams and Gus Mustakas out there putting their heart on the line came into the locker room and told everyone, ‘Right now, we’re here together. We’re a team. We’re a unit as of this moment.”

The Panthers will conclude their season and look for the elusive 10th win, which would mark the first time they’ve done that since the 1981 season, when they play in the Meineke Car Care Bowl on Dec. 26.

“There’s a lot of leaders and seniors on this team and we’re going to make sure we’re ready for whatever bowl game and whatever team that we’ll play,” Stull said after the Cincinnati game. “We’ll somehow, some way, come out with a positive and take it out on whoever we play.”

Pitt will travel to Charlotte, N.C., for the bowl matchup against North Carolina. The Tar Heels (8-4) finished fourth in the Coastal Division of the ACC with a 4-4 conference record.

“We’re going to prepare the same way we have every other week,” Malecki said. “We’re going to go out there, play Pitt football and do what we can and get our 10th win.”

Win or lose, it will be the final game in blue and gold for the seniors.

“Hopefully the young guys will take note,” Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. “[The seniors] led this team from the offseason to now.”