Big East Title Or Bust

With a No. 21 ranking in all the major polls and 7-2 overall record, 3-1 in the Big East, the Pitt football team will go bowling for the first time since fourth-year head coach Dave Wannstedt returned to his alma mater.

However, the Panthers have higher goals. Pittsburgh has a bye this week and visits No. 22-ranked Cincinnati Nov. 22 in a game that will be televised nationally by ESPN 2 at 7:15 p.m.

"Right now, our only goal is to win the Big East championship,'' Wannstedt said. "With that being said, the approach to it and how we get that done, we've got to find a way to beat Cincinnati. No. 1, the goal is to win the championship in the Big East. And that needs to be done one game at a time.''

Wannstedt and his staff basically de-emphasized that goal before the game against Louisville this past Saturday, but with the prospect for a bowl bid coming with a seventh win after beating the Cardinals the Panthers were well aware about what was ahead of them.

"We were going out to do something we've never done before," Pitt sophomore tailback LeSean McCoy said. "We wanted to get to a bowl and win the Big East. Every game is so important to us.

"If we win these last three games, we'll be playing in a nice bowl game against a good team. That's what we want: the Big East championship. So, it was a good win (against Louisville), but nobody is satisfied.''

It was especially important for Pitt to get that seventh victory after what transpired during the past two seasons. The Panthers opened 2006, Wannstedt's second year, with a 6-1 record. However, five straight losses to close the season ended any hopes for a bowl bid and kept Pitt home a second straight year after five straight post-season appearances.

"It's been very disappointing the past three years,'' Wannstedt said. "Two years ago, we were 6-1 and couldn't find a way to get one more (win). And I think there were 5-6 teams that went to bowl games that had six wins. So, we really got squeezed on both ends.

"We didn't win enough games, and there weren't enough bowl games available to us. Then, last year, it was the injury. That took a lot away from us. ... That's why I'm happy for our kids this year. They've worked so hard and have done a great job. And they really deserve it.''

Pitt primarily has been successful this season by using a strong running game, led by McCoy, and a stout defense. But against Louisville, the Panthers were more opportunistic than ever -- scoring on two turnovers, a Scott McKillop interception and Ricky Gary fumble recovery -- and moved the ball on offense without much help from McCoy.

"It's a nice confidence boost to your entire team and your coaching staff, so you never know going into a game who's going to make the plays to win,'' Wannstedt said. "It's nice to not be one-dimensional in any aspect of a game.''

Wannstedt believed the Panthers are right on schedule, as far as the program's progression is concerned, especially since he believed a bowl game was probable last fall if starting quarterback Bill Stull would not have suffered a season-ending thumb injury during the third quarter in the season-opener.

Pitt has been relatively healthy this season, which has helped the cause, and several years of top-level recruiting has finally paid off.

"I think we've got better players now,'' Wannstedt said. "When we line up to play, when you look at athletes versus athletes and not schemes ... and I think we've closed the gap on some people from a talent standpoint.

"We were very fortunate (in recruiting) that we got some good kids before we even won more games. ... We're going to have about 18-19 scholarships (for 2009), and the better you play the more kids want to come play for you. So, when you get players with more ability, you'll win more games.''

With instant access via the internet, it doesn't take a genius to figure out where Pitt ranks among the other Big East teams and their options for the post-season, and the team knows where to get the information.

Sure, there are still several ways things can go, but the bottom line is that if the Panthers win their final games at Cincinnati, at home to West Virginia (Nov. 28 at noon) and at Connecticut (Dec. 6 at a time to be determined) they will win the Big East title and gain a BCS bid.

"As a head coach, it's my job to make sure we keep our feet on the ground, but we did say last week that we needed seven (wins) to be considered for a bowl game,'' Wannstedt said. "And that's what we can control. Now, with three games left, we've got to take them one at a time. And the Big East still is wide open. So, we have to stay focused and beat Cincinnati next week.''

The Bearcats travel to Louisville Friday night before they play Pitt.

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