It was the start of the Big East's final season before a major overhaul. West Virginia has already left for the Big 12, and Pitt and Syracuse will head to the ACC after the season. Next year, the conference expands to the South and West.
"To end the rivalry here with a win and the trophy stays here, that's a blessing," quarterback Munchie Legaux said.
Cincinnati (1-0) won four of the last five games in the Ohio River rivalry, the latest with a reconstituted offense featuring seven new starters.
Legaux, who went 2-1 as an injury fill-in last season, showed off his all-around skills. He completed 14-of-28 passes for 205 yards, including a pair of short throws that running back Ralph David Abernathy IV turned into touchdowns. Legaux also ran six times for a game-high 117 yards.
"I felt I showed everybody I can run this offense," Legaux said. "We call it the no-name offense. I felt I went out there and answered a lot of questions for people."
Legaux is one of Cincinnati's biggest unknowns. As a sophomore last season, he was an erratic passer given to long stretches of incompletions. He was off-target on several intermediate throws Thursday, but didn't have a turnover.
"We still have to be able to play what we call pitch-and-catch," coach Butch Jones said. "But I thought Munchie managed the offense. He was poised, calm and collected. That's what you want from a quarterback."
Pitt (0-2) had several costly plays from senior quarterback Tino Sunseri and more sloppiness overall only five days after a stunning 31-17 loss to Youngstown State. The Panthers are 0-2 for the first time since 2005, the year Cincinnati joined the conference.
Pittsburgh had a touchdown wiped out by penalty, and Sunseri threw an interception in the end zone and held the ball too long on the final play of the first half, letting the clock run out with the ball at the 2-yard line.
"They played the play right," Sunseri said. "I learned with five seconds left not to put so much air under it so you have a couple seconds so you can kick a field goal."
Ray Graham, who returned this season following reconstructive knee surgery, had a 50-yard run that set up Pittsburgh's field goal for its first score. Graham carried 19 times for 103 yards.
Freshman running back Rushel Shell made his debut and carried eight times for 31 yards. Shell, who set a Pennsylvania high school rushing record, was one of six players suspended for Pitt's opener.
For Pitt, it started badly and never got much better. Winn took the handoff on Cincinnati's first play from scrimmage and went 58 yards untouched down the middle of the field for a touchdown.
"It was a great energy boost to our fans, to everyone," Jones said. "I thought it was a great way to get started."
Five plays later, Walter Stewart stripped Sunseri of the ball as he dropped to pass, turning the ball over at the Pitt 38. Legaux threw a swing pass to Abernathy, who went 15 yards down the sideline for a 14-0 lead.
The Bearcats are trying to turn Abernathy into their playmaker, replacing running back Isaiah Pead. The sophomore also turned a short catch into a 12-yard touchdown that completed a 99-yard drive in the fourth quarter.
Just like five days earlier, the Panthers had big problems when they got close to the goal line.
Graham had a 6-yard touchdown run wiped out by a holding penalty in the second quarter, and Sunseri was picked off in the end zone by middle linebacker Greg Blair.
A last-minute Pitt drive helped by a pass interference penalty put the ball at the Cincinnati 2 with five seconds to go. The Panthers decided to throw one more pass rather than kick a field goal. Sunseri held the ball too long while looking for a receiver and the clock ran out as he finally threw the ball away.
The Bearcats were surprised that Pitt didn't take the field goal.
"You always want to just take the points," Stewart said. "It was a gamble by them."
Sunseri was 24 of 37 for 278 yards with six sacks. He led a 76-yard drive against a soft defense in the final minutes, completing a 9-yard touchdown pass with 34 seconds left.
Unable to complete passes with any consistency, Legaux took off running and made a difference. He had back-to-back scrambles for 48 yards that set up a field goal. He also ran 77 yards after faking a handoff in the third quarter, finally getting pushed out of bounds at the Pitt 9-yard line. Winn ran the rest of the way for a 24-3 lead.
"I'm a pass-first quarterback," Legaux said. "In situations today, I had to use my legs. It worked out."