Current Pittsburgh notables like middle linebacker Scott McKillop, tailback LeSean McCoy and center C.J. Davis could be among those selected to the next all-star group or someone like defensive end Jabaal Sheard, cornerback Aaron Berry or wideout Derek Kinder could step up when the Panthers (9-3) meet Oregon State (8-4) in the 75th Sun Bowl Dec. 31 at 2 p.m. in El Paso, Texas.
Fifth-year senior place-kicker Conor Lee also could be a difference-maker.
"We're upset that we didn't win the Big East and get the Orange Bowl, but we wanted to go to the best bowl possible after that,'' Lee said. "And for our Conference, that's the Sun Bowl. So, we accomplished that with nine wins and a second-place finish to get the bowl bid. This is a big game for us.''
Pitt head coach Dave Wannstedt has been involved with the Panthers' Sun Bowl past as a graduate assistant coach in 1975, and now he gets a chance for a starring role this year. Pitt beat Kansas 33-19 in 1975 and returned to El Paso to defeat Texas A&M 31-28 in 1989.
"This is the 75th anniversary of it, and I think that speaks volumes about how good it is because of the way these bowls turn over and change,'' Wannstedt said. "First, the people of El Paso is committed to doing it right.
"It's a national TV game on CBS, New Year's Eve, it's a great time and a great bowl. We wanted to win the championship, but we didn't. So, we wanted to go to the second best bowl, and this is the best one available to us.''
Wannstedt believed that the assistant coaches, as well as the players, should be commended for the big win against Connecticut that sealed the bowl bid. Sure, Pitt started off a little slowly against the Huskies, and after a big win against rival West Virginia, but a big second half carried the day.
"It's a real testimony to the kids, and the assistant coaches did a great job helping us keep a sense of urgency throughout the week,'' Wannstedt said. "West Virginia, that's such a big game for us emotionally every year, and going on the road was a challenge for our guys. ... But we found a way to get refocused in the second half.''
Pitt struggled for various reasons during Wannstedt's initial three seasons guiding the Panthers, but came on strong this season to finish with nine regular-season wins for the first time in 26 years. Surely, the program has turned the corner now and is on the verge of reaching the next level.
Few believed that was possible after a season-opening loss to Bowling Green at home and even after a thrashing by Rutgers in a midseason home game, but everyone likely would have taken a 9-3 record if polled before the first game.
Wannstedt believed the best is yet to come for the Panthers.
"What's encouraging is that we've got (four) seniors on offense and (four) on defense, so we're not a senior team by any means,'' Wannstedt said. "So, I think we're doing it the right way. We're filtering in the Jonathan Baldwins and some of the other players with the Scott McKillops and the veterans.
"So, we've got a nice mix, but we've got to continue to recruit well. To win the games like we have down the stretch, you need to have ability, but you've got to have character, too. And the high character kids that we're recruiting, is starting to show. Last year, it was unfortunate. We would have been a bowl team a year ago. There's no doubt in my mind, if Billy doesn't get hurt.
"Then, we have the whole drama with Kevan and Pat,'' Wannstedt added. "And that really put us behind a couple games. Then, we also lose Kinder and Gus and Pinkston. (But), as many bad breaks as we had last season, we've been pretty healthy this season once we got by the linebackers situation. That's all part of it, but we've had our share. And we overcame it all.''
Lee's excellence helped a sometimes stagnant offense that couldn't even count on McCoy every game. Not that he didn't try, but Lee was near perfect this season with 20 field goals in 23 attempts. And since he has a record for consecutive extra points, including 38-for-38 this season, Lee has been an offensive weapon with 98 points.
"I've had some great opportunities this year, and that's a credit to my team,'' Lee said. "So, some good things have happened to me. When you're team's good, it makes it easier for me to do some good things.
"I wouldn't have even gotten onto the field this year if our offense didn't do what it does and if our defense didn't get us the ball back. ... The way I look at the records, it's all about opportunities for kickers.''
And now Pitt has an opportunity for a 10th win this year, which few likely predicted when the regular season began.
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