Big East Title Destination For Pitt

It's basically a Big East title or bust for the Pitt football team this season after finishing one game off the pace last fall despite the school's most successful regular season in some two decades.

Pittsburgh was 9-4 last year, including a Sun Bowl loss, but a disheartening defeat at Cincinnati cost the Panthers the Conference crown and BCS bowl bid.

"We've had a lot of team meetings, and that was the discussion,'' sixth-year senior middle linebacker Adam Gunn said. "If we don't win the Big East, we won't be happy this season.

"We're not happy with the way last season ended, and we won't be happy unless we win the Big East championship title game. So, that's been our focus, and that's what we're striving for every day.''

The Panthers also weren't too thrilled that losses were bookends to last season, as Bowling Green came to Heinz Field and hung a 27-17 crusher on Coach Dave Wannstedt's club. They also lost 3-0 in the Sun Bowl, which set offensive football back a century or so.

Pitt's upperclassmen don't want to open this season the same way, so that Bowling Green game has been a frequent topic of discussion as well.

"That's kind of been our mindset so far this year,'' Gunn said. "Even throughout last year, we were so disappointed with that initial loss.

"So, this whole offseason and camp, we were preparing to make sure that we didn't start this season the way that we did the last one. It was real tough to lose to Bowling Green, and I can almost say that we overlooked them. But we're not going to let that happen against Youngstown State.''

Pitt reeled off five straight wins after that opening loss to Bowling Green, but it was difficult for the Panthers to put that defeat behind them.

"That haunted us all year, really,'' fifth-year senior defensive tackle Gus Mustakas said. "It never should have happened, but we lost Adam and Shane Murray and had two new outside linebackers in there. So, that was tough to overcome, and we turned the ball over. That really killed us.''

That last point is what Wannstedt blames for the loss. It didn't help the Panthers' confidence that he called for punts from his team's 34- and 35-yard lines. Pitt had four turnovers and forced just one.

"That topic has come up,'' Wannstedt said. "And I don't think it's a matter of taking anybody lightly. It's a matter of being focused and going out there and playing as good as you can play. We lost to Bowling Green last year because we turned the football over. And we didn't tackle good.

"So, we've got to go out there and protect the football, and we've got to tackle good. If we do those things, you're going to have a chance to win every week whether it's Youngstown State or West Virginia. That's the key, focusing on us and playing as good as we can play.''

Pitt will get an initial opportunity to do that against the YSU Penguins Saturday at 1 p.m. at Heinz Field.

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