Perhaps no team took as much of a costly tumble toward the end of the season as Pittsburgh, which was one defensive stand away from claiming the Big East’s spot in the BCS.
Coach Dave Wannstedt’s team can still pull off something the program hasn’t accomplished in 28 years.
A victory in the Meineke Car Care Bowl on Dec. 26 would seal the 17th-ranked Panthers’ first 10-win season since the days of Dan Marino, but they could have their hands full with North Carolina’s top-10 defense and what’s likely to be a pro-Tar Heels crowd in Charlotte.
Pittsburgh (9-3) was the preseason favorite to win the Big East and was in position to do so in late November, carrying a 5-0 conference record into a road game against rival West Virginia.
A 19-16 loss to the Mountaineers only cost the Panthers a shot at winning the conference crown outright, but they still could have claimed the league’s BCS berth by knocking off 11-0 Cincinnati on Dec. 5 at Heinz Field.
Quarterback Bill Stull’s three-yard touchdown run late in the second quarter gave Pitt a 31-10 lead, but it fell apart from there and lost a 45-44 thriller. Cincinnati scored 21 fourth-quarter points, including the go-ahead TD with 33 seconds left after the Panthers’ previous scoring drive ended with a botched extra point.
“I was convinced we were going to win this game,” Wannstedt said. “I was and our whole football team was. … It was a tough, heartbreaking loss to say the least.”
So instead of a likely trip to the Orange Bowl, Pitt heads to Charlotte for the first time since 2003, when it lost 23-16 to Virginia in the Continental Tire Bowl. The Panthers, can, however, earn a 10th win for the first time since Marino led them to an 11-1 record as a junior in 1981.
North Carolina (8-4) had a chance to improve its bowl destination with a victory in its regular-season finale, but like the Panthers, suffered a crushing defeat. With a chance for its first five-game winning streak in more than eight years, the Tar Heels blew a 10-point halftime lead in Raleigh, falling 28-27 to rival N.C. State despite gaining 481 total yards.
“Everybody wants to point a finger and say we should have been in a better bowl game, but we did that to ourselves,” cornerback Kendric Burney said. “We’re happy with the fact we’re playing a good Pittsburgh team.”
The lone common opponent between the teams this season was N.C. State, which beat the visiting Panthers 38-31 on Sept. 26.
The Tar Heels will hope for a different result in Charlotte - just over a two-hour drive from Chapel Hill - than what they endured last season against West Virginia. North Carolina led the 2008 Meineke Car Care Bowl heading to the fourth quarter before the Mountaineers rallied for a 31-30 win.
The Panthers also played a tight postseason contest, but it certainly wasn’t a pretty one. Oregon State’s second-quarter field goal held up in a mistake-filled 3-0 Sun Bowl victory over Pitt on New Year’s Eve, the lowest-scoring bowl game in a half-century.
Stull, then a junior, capped off that season of struggles by going 7 of 24 for 52 yards with an interception, but he’s bounced back with an impressive senior year and was named the Big East’s all-conference quarterback.
He struggled in the Panthers’ final two losses, however, tossing two interceptions apiece against West Virginia and Cincinnati.
The biggest reason Pitt has the nation’s 16th-best scoring offense (33.2 points per game) was Big East offensive player of the year Dion Lewis. He finished third nationally in rushing yards per game (136.7) and scored 17 touchdowns.
Lewis is 46 yards shy of Tony Dorsett’s 36-year-old Pitt freshman record of 1,686 rushing yards after carrying a school-record 47 times for 194 yards and three scores against Cincinnati.
“Dion Lewis is the best. I love him and he’s a great player,” Wannstedt said. “He shows up. It’s amazing for a freshman, 12 weeks in the season to show up with the performance he had.”
Lewis, Stull and sophomore receiver Jonathan Baldwin were among the Panthers’ six offensive - and 10 overall - first-team all-conference selections, but they’ll have a big challenge against North Carolina’s defense.
The Tar Heels rank sixth nationally in total defense (267.8 yards per game), including ninth against the run and 15th through the air.
Pitt’s defense is 26th overall (323.9 ypg), but Greg Romeus (eight sacks) leads a defensive line largely responsible for a Bowl Subdivision-best 45 sacks and could give North Carolina’s T.J. Yates - the ACC’s 10th-rated passer (114.8) - a tough time.
“Our defense is always under the microscope,” said coach Butch Davis, an assistant coach along with Wannstedt at Oklahoma in 1979. “Clearly, Pitt’s defense is really good. … They limit your ability to make big plays because you do not have the ball very long.”
North Carolina leads the all-time series 4-2, winning 20-17 at Chapel Hill in 2000 in the most recent meeting.