Dave Wannstedt said this week that his team was not playing for pride, but they were playing to win. Win they did, in a 28-10 win at Cincinnati. In the process, the Panthers improve to 7-5 on the season, and 5-2 in the Big East--at least clinching a share of the Big East title.
In the end though, Saturday was just about getting the win.
"You'd like to be 7-0 (in conference play), that's the ultimate goal," head coach Dave Wannstedt said after the game. "All we could control was today, and our guys responded the right way."
Pitt established the running game--a heavy dose of Dion Lewis--who finished the game with 261 yards on 42 carries; an average of 6.2 yards a carry, along with four touchdowns. The yards and touchdowns care both career-highs for Lewis.
Typically, both Lewis and Ray Graham have shared reps this week. Graham made an appearance in the second quarter, but according to Wannstedt after the game, was not 100 percent healthy to go on Saturday. Instead of the two-back approach, Cincinnati got a taste of what Pitt's 2009 victims felt, and that was a heavy dose of Lewis.
"We went into this game, and we weren't sure how much Ray was going to play," Wannstedt said. "I told Dion, I said, ‘Get ready for 35 carries.'"
This was against a Cincinnati run defense, that entering the contest, ranked third in the Big East and 21st nationally in run defense.
The offense outgained Cincinnati 430-265. The defense came up big with four turnovers; a pair of turnovers from linebacker Max Gruder, as well as two fourth-quarter interceptions by Dom DeCicco. Both of Gruder's first-half turnovers led to Pitt touchdowns.
"We lose four (turnovers) to West Virginia, and the score is about the opposite," Wannstedt said. "What needs to be said? You win the turnover battle, you're going to win."
The offense was also successful in third-down situations, converting 9-of-16 chances. Pitt's top three tacklers were all defensive linemen; Chas Alecxih with eight tackles, Jabaal Sheard with seven and Brandon Lindsey with six.
"I think the d-line played well," Sheard said. "A couple guys stepped up, and we made the plays."
The first quarter was marred by penalties and missed opportunities. Each team committed a penalty on its first drive of the game; both were the second play of the game for both offenses, both resulted in positive yardage. Cincinnati was called for holding on its second play of the game, while Pitt was called for pass interference on its second play of the game.
On its second drive of the game, after converting two first downs, Pitt was able to come up with a turnover, something they talked about this week. Isaiah Pead took the handoff, but Max Gruder reached for the ball, stripping it, and was able to fall on it. Capitalizing on the turnover, Pitt took the ball 73 yards in 9 plays, resulting in a 1-yard touchdown run by Lewis, his first of the day.
Interestingly on this drive, when Lewis came over to the bench to get a breather following a 30-yard run to the Cincinnati 13, it was Chris Burns and not Ray Graham who came on to relieve him. Burns rushed for eight yards on his first attempte, but the play was negated due to an offsides penalty by Pitt. Both teams combined for four penalties in the first quarter. Lewis carried the ball 10 times in the first quarter for a total of 60 yards.
Gruder came up with another big play on the next series, intercepting a Collaros pass. It was the first interception of his career. Pitt matched its turnover total from the previous three games combined by forcing two turnovers in the first quarter alone. Gruder's second forced turnover of the day proved to be bigger, as the Bearcats marched to the Pitt 20--a total of 50 yards in six plays.
"Every day we make an emphasis on creating turnovers; forcing fumbles and making interceptions," Gruder said after the game. "We did a great job creating turnovers. I didn't make the play. I just played off Chas (Alecxih). Chas made a great deflection (on his interception), and Myles had the forced fumble. I just played off of what my teammates did."
Despite productive total in the first quarter, Lewis eclipsed his total on the first play of the second quarter, with a 76-yard touchdown run. Through 15 minutes and 12 seconds of the game, Lewis already established a season-high with 135 yards. His previous season-high was 130 yards against Rutgers. More importantly, two Pitt turnovers, two Pitt touchdowns.
Cincinnati, however, answered with a seven-play, 60-yard drive that ended with a three-yard pass from Collaros to Anthony McClung. Cincinnati rushed for four first downs to start the drive, setting up a 1st-and-goal at the Pitt 1. After allowing four double-digit runs to the Bearcats, Pitt's defense tightened up, holding Pead to no gain and Jabaal Sheard sacking Collaros for a two-yard loss. On the third-down play, Dom DeCicco had perfect coverage on McClung, and was able to make the play for the interception. Freakishly, the ball sailed through his hands, and into the hands of McClung, who fell down on the play, and rolled out of bounds. Still, there was enough evidence to show that he had possession in bounds, as Cincinnati trimmed the Pitt lead to 14-7.
Pitt answered with a 12-play, 68-yard drive that resulted in Lewis' third touchdown run of the day, this time from seven yards out. The Panthers used the pass to set up the run on this play, with a big third-down completion from Sunseri to Mike Shanahan; a 15-yarder, which kept the drive alive. Sunseri also found Baldwin for a couple of short passes.
The Bearcats were moving the ball well on the ensuing drive, until Collaros fumbled the snap inside the Pitt 15. He was able to recover it, but after driving into the red zone again, Cincinnati had a 3rd-and-11 at the Pitt 15. On third down, Brandon Lindsey and Aaron Donald hurried Collaros all the way back to the Pitt 40. Collaros was able to get rid of the ball, throwing it out of bounds. Jacob Rogers kicked a 32-yard field goal, as Pitt held a 21-10 lead at halftime.
Pitt took the ball on the opening kickoff of the second half, and was on the verge of a 28-10 lead. Sunseri completed 2-of-3 passes for 50 yards, supplemented by a few gains from Lewis. On a 2nd-and-10 at the Cincinnati, Sunseri rolled left on a playaction pass, and found a wide-open Mike Shanahan at the 3. Shanahan tried to pull the ball toward him, but bobbled it to the cornerback behind him, Camerron Cheatham, who was able to intercept the pass, halting Pitt's drive. Cincinnati mounted a few yards off the turnover, but was forced to punt.
It wasn't all a failure as Lewis set his new career-high, and crossed the 200-yard mark for the game; the first time he had done so in his career.
Pitt had one more shot to add points in the third quarter. After the Panthers drove 56 yards in 10 plays, Dan Hutchins' 37-yard field goal bounced off the goal post, and back into the end zone. Cincinnati answered with a punt back to the Panthers, as the third quarter ended with the same score, 21-10 in favor of Pitt, as it was at halftime.
After Pitt dropped the Bearcats at their own 20, following a Hutchins punt that went out of the end zone, the Panthers defense produced another turnover. DeCicco picked off a pass by Collaros, which set Pitt up at the Bearcat 24. The Panthers didn't score. In fact, they turned the ball over on a fumble by Lewis, which pinned the Bearcats at their own 4 to start the drive. Gruder sacked Collaros on 3rd-and-10 at the 1, to force a punt.
Pitt got the ball back with 4:46 left. Pitt was able to take 1:25 off the clock--three runs by Lewis, with a short gain from Christopher Mike--before Cincinnati called its first timeout to stop the clock. After that timeout, Lewis locked it up with his fourth touchdown run of the day; a 24-yarder, to clinch the win.
"It felt good," Lewis said of his performance. "The long runs hadn't come this year like they had last year. I was just so hungry today to have a good game."
On the Bearcats' next possession, DeCicco added his second interception of the game--a priceless feeling for a senior captain looking to leave a mark on his team, in a game with a lot on the line.
"That first (Cincinnati) touchdown (pass) went right through my hands," DeCicco said. "It happened, but I couldn't stop thinking about it. I got my hands on the ball at the end of the game, because I left everyone down with that first touchdown."