January 20, 2010
A season in review.
It didn't bust any bubbles on hype, but 2009 was quietly a banner season for Pittsburgh: The Panthers won 10 games for the first time since Dan Marino was the quarterback in 1981, and finished in the top 15 of the final polls for the first time since '82. Outside of the brief window as a national player from 1976-82, it was one of Pitt's best efforts since the Great Depression -- and still ended without a conference championship, in the cold of a third-tier bowl the day after Christmas. In 2008, off three straight seasons at home for the holidays, 9-4 and a December bowl game seemed like progress; in '09, even as Dave Wannstedt continues to solidify the Panthers as consistent contenders in the Big East, the bar continues to move.
• The Good. Dion Lewis came in as an obscure, pint-sized recruit, and ended his freshman campaign just nine yards away from the national rushing title after ripping off eight straight 100-yard games to close the year, six of them for 150 or more. Lewis vaulted into All-America attention with a grueling 194-yard, three-touchdown effort on 47 carries (five more than any other player attempted in any game this year) in the season-ending shootout against Cincinnati, when he carried Pitt within a point of the Big East title.
Beyond its headliner, though, the offense -- a unit that lost its leading rusher and receiver and gave up more sacks than any other team in the Big East in 2008, and returned a quarterback who threw more interceptions than touchdowns and was last seen completing 7 of 24 passes in a dreadful 3-0 loss to Oregon State -- was a revelation all the way around. Besides Lewis shattering every freshman record in sight, the Panthers got an All-Big East performance out of quarterback Bill Stull, who hooked up with all-conference teammates Jonathan Baldwin (1,111 receiving yards on 20 per catch with eight TDs) and Dorrin Dickerson (10 TD catches) behind a line that slashed the number of sacks it allowed in '08 in half. Scoring jumped by almost a full touchdown per game.
The defense also led the nation in sacks, for the record, with eight different players who notched at least four -- two of whom, ends Greg Romeus and Mick Williams, wound up sharing the league's Defensive Player of the Year award. But we're not here to gush on and on.
• The Bad. The secondary had its issues in September, allowing 433 yards and four touchdowns through the air in a win over Buffalo and then 322 and another four scores in the killer loss at N.C. State two weeks later, and proved to be the team's undoing at the end: With the offense rolling and the BCS within sight in the winner-take-all showdown with Cincinnati, the Panthers gave up three second half touchdown passes to Cincy quarterback Tony Pike, the last one a 29-yard dagger with 30 seconds remaining to secure the Bearcats' perfect season.
The same defense had intercepted Pike three times earlier the game en route to a 31-10 lead and was on its way to sending him out with one of the worst efforts of his career, but with the season on the line, it couldn't hold up down the stretch.
• The Weird. If you're so inclined, it's not hard to look at the Panthers as a team on the brink of a major breakthrough: Their three losses came by a combined 11 points, and they held fourth quarter leads in two of them; in the other, they pulled even with West Virginia, 16-16, until the Mountaineers' winning field goal on the final play. With a couple breaks, it could have been Pitt, not Cincinnati, sitting as the undefeated Big East champion at the end of the year.
Or, by the same logic, the Panthers might have missed a bowl game completely and begun imagining Dave Wannstedt as a giant, empty can just waiting to be kicked down the road. They won their share of close games, too, escaping UConn with a field goal on the last play, fending off strong comeback bids by Rutgers and Notre Dame and only closing out win No. 10 with another last-minute kick against North Carolina in the bowl game. When you veer as near to seven wins as to 13, coming in with 10 seems just about right.
• The Takeaway. With Brian Kelly's departure from Cincinnati and Jim Leavitt's abrupt exit at South Florida, incredibly, Dave Wannstedt -- the same mustachioed mediocrity in the critics' crosshairs going into 2008 after failing to get the team over .500 in any of his first three seasons -- now stands as possibly the most stable coach in the Big East. At the very least, the Panthers answered any doubts about their staying power at the top of the conference, and should replace the attrition-ravaged Bearcats as the league's most bankable winner; with legitimate, national stars coming back in Lewis, Baldwin and Romeus, they should also have a stranglehold on the top spot in the preseason polls.