Pitt's chances for a Big East championship and a BCS bowl bid were leveled by a West Virginia comeback that now leaves the Panthers on the verge of a losing season and no bowl at all.
The Mountaineers came from behind to pull out a victory in the 104th Backyard Brawl, 21-20, perhaps the final game in the series as both teams are heading to new leagues, leaving Pitt at 5-6 and needing to win on Dec. 3 at home against Syracuse to salvage a .500 year.
"We are absolutely, just crushed, devastated," first-year head coach Todd Graham said. "We have a whole bunch of guys in (the locker room), especially this senior bunch, that has really bought in to how we are doing things.
"We are playing so good in so many areas, and there are some areas that are absolutely killing us."
The Panthers, crippled on offense by injuries to the offensive line and running back Ray Graham, who was No. 2 in the nation in rushing when he was lost for the year, gave up 10 sacks in losing the game.
The 20 points they scored all came off WVU's dismal kicking game, a touchdown and field goal after punts of 22 and 27 yards and another touchdown and field goal after fumbles on punt returns.
Pitt will have to find a way to right the ship against a struggling Syracuse team or have a long off-season trying to figure out why Graham's system, so prolific at Tulsa, did not work with quarterback Tino Sunseri pulling the trigger and coming up with ways to fix it.
--Pitt continued its third down defensive effectiveness, holding WVU to just two of 12 successful conversions. Over the past four games teams have been successful on just 10 of 50 third down plays. WVU, however, did convert a key fourth-down play on its drive to its final touchdown.
--The Panthers came into the game ranked fifth in the nation in sacks with 3.20 per game and had a decent day with four sacks of Geno Smith. The figure was overlooked in comparison to the 10 sacks the Panthers allowed.
SERIES HISTORY: Pitt leads the series, 33-30-3 (last game, 2010, Pitt 45, Syracuse 14)
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: Pittsburgh's offensive line has been savaged all season by injury and it really hurt them when WVU ran roughshod over the Panthers, recording 10 sacks of QB Tino Sunseri. The Panther offense also has been hurt by the loss of RB Ray Graham, second in the nation in rushing when he went down with a knee injury. His replacement Zach Brown has been workmanlike but isn't the breakaway threat. WR Devin Street has developed into an offensive weapon. It will help going against the worst pass defense in the Big East. It is also excellent in the red zone.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the Panthers this year has been the defense. While the offense has injuries as an excuse, the defense has remained relatively healthy but ranks in the middle of the Big East in all areas. It has only excelled at rushing the passer. Beyond that teams have been able to both run the ball and pass it effectively.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We are absolutely, just crushed, devastated. We have a whole bunch of guys in (the locker room), especially this senior bunch, that has really bought in to how we are doing things." -- Pitt's first-year head coach Todd Graham after losing to WVU, 21-20.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Syracuse at Pittsburgh, Dec. 3 -- Long time series that will continue when the two teams move into the ACC. Pitt holds a slim 33-30-3 edge in the series that has showcased such players as Jim Brown, Ernie Davis, Larry Csonka, Tony Dorsett, Mike Ditka and Dan Marino. Pitt needs the game to reach 6-6, a .500 season, which is terribly disappointing in Coach Todd Graham's first season.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Pittsburgh builds its defense off its pass rush and will try to pressure QB Ryan Nassib, who has become one of the most dangerous QBs in the conference, ranking behind WVU's Geno Smith and South Florida's B.J. Daniels. The defense is going to have running of Antwon Bailey, a hard-runner who needs two yards for 1,000 coming into the game. But if Pitt is to win this game it is going to have get some protection for QB Tino Sunseri, coming off a 10-sack game. If he's harried like that he has no chance. Coach Todd Graham also has a tough psychological job this week getting the team back up after such a difficult loss to West Virginia.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
QB Tino Sunseri -- Sunseri is coming off a nightmarish experience in Morgantown where West Virginia sacked him 10 times after having only one sack at the half. The final four plays of the game resulted in sacks. Sunseri panicked late in the game, too, which made things more difficult. He did do a decent job with his legs when he could get free and given time he can complete some passes, but working behind a patchwork offensive line has made it difficult on him.
WR Devin Street -- Street has been a late bloomer this year but has come on strongly and now ranks fifth in the conference in receiving yards per game at 66.3 while catching 43 passes. He had two consecutive 100-yard receiving days coming into the WVU game but, while he was the leading receiver with four catches, they netted him just 50 yards. Pitt will try to use him deep to loosen things up for the running game.
DT Aaron Donald -- Donald had a sack on the first defensive series for the Panthers against WVU and now has 10 for the year. He is the fourth player with double-figure sacks for Pitt since 2000 and ranks second in the Big East in sacks this season. Coming into the season he wasn't even starting, but the sophomore showed himself to be a force in the pass rush.
--OG Lucas Nix returned to the lineup after missing five games with a knee injury.
--RB Zach Brown, who had provided Pittsburgh with some decent running in the first half, was knocked of the game with a bruised sternum. Brown carried 15 times for 67 yards.
--WR Ronald Jones, who doubles as the Wildcat QB, left the game in the first half with concussion. Jones carried three times but netted only one yard.