Pittsburgh (9-3), which won nine regular-season games for the first time since 1982, accepted a bid to the 75th annual Sun Bowl Dec. 31 in El Paso, Texas and have the defense to thank for it. The Panthers collected five interceptions.
Redshirt freshman outside linebacker Greg Williams had two picks, including one he returned for a touchdown from 20 yards out. Sophomore safety Dom DeCicco had his team-high fourth interception. Junior cornerback Aaron Berry finally secured his second pick this season and returned it 52 yards. And junior cornerback Jovani Chappel added his second pick.
"It was almost as many as the Super Bowl in '92 against Buffalo (when he was defensive coordinator for Dallas) where we had nine, so we needed a few more to keep that up,'' Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "Our coaches had a good plan. Connecticut's a good team. They're really good on defense.
"In the first half, we felt like we had a couple of offensive plays we left on the field. We had the ball at the 50, got no points. We had the ball at their 9 and got a field goal. So, we felt like we didn't take advantage of opportunities. You've got to give them credit. But in the second half, our guys just showed that relentless attitude and effort that we've shown all year.''
Pitt fifth-year senior middle linebacker Scott McKillop has anchored the defense for two years, and he has another strong performance against UConn.
"This was a great team effort,'' McKillop said. "The defense made a lot of plays, and Greg Williams had two picks. We played one of our best games all season. That's one of things that Coach Wannstedt always stresses, to try to play your best football at the end of the season.
"We had a lot of people step up and make plays. We knew it was going to be a defensive game, just based on (how) both offenses were playing. We're happy with the victory, and its always nice -- we knew we were going to a bowl game -- to know we're coming off of a win.''
Pitt's play on both sides of the ball was different from last year's abysmal blowout loss to UConn at Heinz Field.
"We executed, being in the right place at the right time,'' McKillop said. "A couple of picks were batted balls that went to the right players, (and we were) just in the right place at the right time. We knew they wanted to run power, and we knew what Donald Brown was capable of.
"He's a great back, and he played well today. (But) they made a couple of mistakes, and we capitalized on them. This time, we were more prepared, and we executed better."
Wannstedt praised his players for getting up for a strong finish despite the emotion involved in beating arch-rival West Virginia the previous week.
"This is a great group of young men, a great group of seniors,'' Wannstedt said. "For them to win nine games and top it of with an invitation to the Sun Bowl, it's a great day for Pitt football.''
Pitt will face Oregon State (8-4) from the Pac-10 in the 75th annual Sun Bowl Dec. 31 at 2 p.m. in El Paso, Texas.
"Pitt football and the Sun Bowl are synonymous with great football tradition,'' Pitt director of athletics Steve Pederson said. "It is an honor for us to be playing in the 75th anniversary of a game that has meant so much to college football. We can't wait to bring our fine team to El Paso.''
This will mark the third appearance by the Panthers in the Sun Bowl. The Panthers first came to El Paso under the direction of Johnny Majors in 1975 and returned in 1989 with Paul Hackett at the helm.
"A trip to El Paso for this year's Sun Bowl is a tremendous reward for our football program and university,'' Wannstedt said. "I had the pleasure of being part of this great bowl game as a first-year grad assistant at Pitt with Coach Majors back in 1975.
"Moreover, my family and I are looking forward to returning to the great state of Texas, where we lived during my days coaching with the Dallas Cowboys. The Sun Bowl has strong tradition, and we are excited to add to its wonderful history this New Year's Eve.''
Pitt defeated Kansas, 33-19, in the 1975 Sun Bowl. The Panthers set an NCAA bowl record, as three players rushed for more than 100 yards. Tony Dorsett rushed for 142 yards and two touchdowns, while Elliott Walker added 123 yards and two scores. However, the game's MVP, quarterback Robert Haygood, tallied 101 yards rushing and 60 yards passing with an 8-for-11 performance.
Pitt returned to the Sun Bowl in 1989 to take on Texas A&M. Freshman quarterback Alex Van Pelt led the Panthers to a come-from-behind 31-28 victory. Swervin' Curvin Richards rushed for 156 yards, while Van Pelt completed 20 of 40 passes for 354 yards and two touchdowns.
This marks the 25th bowl appearance by Pitt, but the first since the 2004 season, when the Panthers won a share of the Big East Conference title and participated in the BCS Fiesta Bowl. The Panthers are 11-13 all-time in bowl appearances and 2-0 in the Sun Bowl.
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