With over a month to kill between the final regular season game and Pitt’s appearance in the BBVA Compass Bowl, now seems like the perfect time to come up with some good end-of-the-year lists for Pitt. Over the next few days, I’ll have a couple of top ten lists to sum up Pitt’s season. First, we’ll take a look at the top ten “moments” of Pitt’s 2012 season. It’s sort of a loosely-defined term, but here are ten moments, good and bad, that sum up the Panthers’ first season under Paul Chryst.
10. Dan Mason’s return. This one was probably the feel-good moment of Pitt’s season. It came in small increments. First, Mason got a little bit of garbage time action against Gardner-Webb. The next week against Syracuse, he got meaningful playing time when a couple of guys went down with injury. Against Buffalo, Mason got his first start since the week before he suffered a gruesome knee injury early in the 2010 season. What’s more, Mason actually played well in his time on the field. In just five games, Mason racked up 27 tackles, and 1.5 sacks. Mason’s season came to an abrupt end against Temple when he suffered a lacerated liver making a tackle. All indications point to Mason being ready to go for spring practice.
9. Bookends of the Cincinnati first half. This one is sort of cheating with two moments in one. The first was George Winn’s 58-yard run on the Bearcats’ first play from scrimmage in Pitt’s Big East opener. That one play seemed to confirm that Pitt’s season-opening loss to Youngstown State was not completely an aberration. While the team, and defense in particular, improved throughout the season, that one play seemed to send a big message.
The second play from the Cincinnati first half is actually the last play of the half. With five seconds left on the clock, Chryst opted to take one shot at the end zone before kicking the field goal. Tino Sunseri double-pumped and, ultimately, threw the ball through the uprights, but after the clock hit triple-zeroes. Pitt came away with no points thanks entirely to poor clock management.
8. Teddy Bridgewater’s 75-yard touchdown pass to DeVante Parker. Pitt led Louisville 21-17 at halftime, but it didn’t last long, as the Cardinals retook the lead on the first play in the second half. The Panthers never got it back, and lost 45-35. This moment is also more symbolic of the 17-0 third quarter beating Louisville put on the Panthers. This game was a big opportunity for Pitt to bounce back against a ranked opponent after the loss to Syracuse, and, theoretically, could’ve kept the Panthers in the Big East title race.
7. Loss to Youngstown State. Practically, this game didn’t actually end up mattering too much. Only one FCS win can count towards bowl eligibility and Pitt got that against Gardner-Webb. From a perception standpoint, though, you never want to be “that team” that loses to and FCS opponent during the first few weeks of the season. Add in that it was Paul Chryst’s first game at the helm, plus the six player suspensions the day of the game, and it was pretty much the worst opening week imaginable for Chryst and the Panthers.
6. Tino Sunseri’s interception against Virginia Tech. This one isn’t as much about the play itself but more the streak it started. Think about it this way: Tino Sunseri has not thrown an interception in 103 days. That’s a stretch of 270 passes, the longest active such streak in the country. I know there have been plenty of criticisms of Sunseri over the past three years, some of which are certainly valid, but it’s impossible to deny that Sunseri has been remarkably efficient and protective of the football this season. Yes, he took some bad sacks at inopportune times and, no, he has not led the Panthers on a dramatic, fourth-quarter drive. Yet the quarterback position was definitely not a weakness for Pitt this season.
5. The Rutgers win. OK, this one isn’t one “moment,” but rather an event, you could say. Coming off a disheartening 24-17 loss to Connecticut, Pitt needed a win to maintain any hope of earning a bowl bid at the end of the season. The Scarlet Knights, meanwhile, were the co-favorites to earn the Big East’s BCS bid. Pitt came out focused and determined, and really controlled the game from the outset. The Panthers bounced back after fumbling on the doorstep of Rutgers’ end zone, and never let the Scarlet Knights’ offense develop any sense of momentum. Knowing that South Florida was in a tailspin heading into the season finale, this win essentially locked up a bowl bid for Pitt.
4. Virginia Tech win. Another game, rather than moment, but I’m going to count it. Obviously, this one looks a little different in retrospect after the Hokies’ 6-6 finish, but at the time it was a major win over a top-15 team. After opening losses to Youngstown State and Cincinnati, no one gave Pitt much of a chance against Virginia Tech. Much like the Rutgers game, though, Pitt controlled the game from the outset. The Panthers intercepted Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas three times, and Ray Graham scored three touchdowns, his first scores since coming off ACL surgery last year. This game also served as the coming-out party for Rushel Shell, who ran for 157 yards in a punishing, bruising style. Not to mention, it was Paul Chryst’s first win at Pitt.
3. Ray Graham’s performance against Notre Dame. Simply put, Graham was better than any other offensive player the Irish defense has faced this season. There are two plays that I think sum up this performance. On Pitt’s first play from scrimmage, Graham burst through the middle for 55 yards, still the longest play Notre Dame’s defense has allowed this season. That play showed that the Panthers came to South Bend with every intention of playing the Irish tough. Where virtually every other offense had failed, running the ball against the Irish, Pitt was determined to succeed, and they did. The second play from this game that stands out is Graham’s rushing touchdown, the only one the Irish have allowed to an opposing running back this season (they allowed one to Oklahoma quarterback Blake Bell). Graham ran around and through several Notre Dame defenders on his way to the end zone to give Pitt a 10-6 lead, a lead they would not relinquish until the final play of the game.
2. Paul Chryst staying put. To put it in Barry Alvarez’s words, “Paul’s going to stay at Pitt.” When Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema announced that he was leaving the Badgers to take the head coaching job at Arkansas, pretty much every Pitt fan (and college football fan) had the same reaction. Chryst always seemed like a perfect fit for Wisconsin. He’s from Madison, went to the school and coached there for six years. It seemed like at least a distinct possibility that Alvarez would tab Chryst as Bielema’s successor and Pitt would be forced to go through a coaching search for the fourth time in three seasons. Ultimately, though, Alvarez and Chryst decided that it wouldn’t be a good idea for Chryst to jump back to Madison this year, and the Badgers hired Utah State’s Gary Andersen. For the first time since the end of the 2009 season, Pitt will transition into spring practice with the same coach it finished the season with.
1. Kevin Harper’s 33-yard field goal missed against Notre Dame. Let’s get one thing clear first. Harper is not responsible for Pitt losing to the Irish. The Panthers had more than a couple of chances to finish off the game but couldn’t seal the deal. I wouldn’t even peg the missed field goal entirely on Harper, since the snap was more than just a bit high. Still, though, this one play more than any other crystallizes Pitt’s 14-point collapse against Notre Dame. If Pitt’s special teams can convert this play, the Panthers win the game. It’s that simple.
The Panthers played the Irish better than any other opponent this season -- a list that includes Oklahoma, Stanford and USC -- and had them on the ropes with a 20-6 fourth-quarter advantage. The Irish took advantage of a questionable pass interference call early in the fourth quarter to score their first touchdown. Pitt looked to have the game won with 3:59 left when K’Waun Williams picked off Irish quarterback Everett Golson in Pitt’s end zone. On the ensuing drive, though, Pitt killed just 56 seconds with some curious pass-heavy play-calling. The Irish got the ball back again and tied the game to force overtime.
Pitt caught a break in the second overtime when Notre Dame running back Cierre Wood fumbled as he was going in for a touchdown, but the Panthers couldn’t convert the 33-yard field goal on their attempt. It was confirmed the next day that Notre Dame had two players wearing No. 2 on that field goal attempt, which should’ve resulted in a penalty and a first-down for Pitt, but was missed by the officials.
A win over Notre Dame would’ve given the season an entirely different flavor, even if the rest of the season played out exactly the same way. Pitt would’ve knocked Notre Dame, No. 3 at the time, out of national title contention and given Chryst a signature win in his first season.
Not only that, but had Pitt converted the field goal, it would’ve totally reshaped the 2012 college football season. With Notre Dame out of the picture, would it be Florida against Alabama in the national championship game? Maybe Oregon or Kansas State, without the Irish breathing down their necks, don’t drop a game and earn themselves a spot in the title.
So there you have it. Ten moments to paint a picture of Pitt’s 2012 regular season. I’m sure some of you will disagree with my rankings, or have moments of your own to add. Please feel free to do so in the comments.