But that was the case, as No. 5 Cincinnati came back to tie the score with 33 seconds remaining and kick the extra point to beat No. 14 Pittsburgh 45-44. The Panthers scored 1:03 earlier, but redshirt sophomore walk-on holder Andrew Janocko mishandled the conversion snap, and no kick was made.
The Bearcats got a 26-yard kickoff return from Mardy Gilyard and then needed just four plays and 1:03 to go 61 yards for the winning points. Cincinnati quarterback Tony Pike was 4-for-4 during the final drive, making up for a poor overall performance, and hit Armon Binns from 29 yards out for the win.
The Bearcats, now 12-0, earned the Big East title and the BCS Bowl bid that comes with it for the second straight year. However, Cincinnati hopes for a couple higher-ranked teams to lose to get a BCS title shot. Pitt, 9-3 for the second straight year, also must await its bowl fate. The Meineke Car Care Bowl in Charlotte or Papajohns.com Bowl in Birmingham are likely destinations.
"It was a tough, heartbreaking loss, to say the least, but I thought our kids played as hard as they could from start to finish,'' Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "We knew this game would come down to the end. They're a very good football team, (and) they're very explosive.
"We felt like going in if we could establish our running game, that would be our lifeline to victory. And we did that, and we gained some momentum. But I thought the kickoff (return) changed the momentum in the game, and we came out in the second half and ... we never really gained that momentum that we had in the first half.''
There were enough highlights in the first half to fill any team's season, as the Panthers roared to a 31-10 lead with 1:26 remaining before the intermission. However, the fireworks were far from finished. Gilyard ran back the ensuing kickoff 99 yards for a score, and that was the life the Bearcats needed.
Despite 194 yards and three touchdowns on a Pitt-record 47 carries by frosh tailback Dion Lewis and nearly double the possession time, Cincinnati quickly turned around a 31-17 halftime disadvantage. The Bearcats scored on a 68-yard scoring pass from Pike to Gilyard to get close, and the Panthers struggled to maintain their advantage.
A great punt return by Aaron Smith where he made an over-the-shoulder grab and then returned it 33 yards. Lewis rambled all 32 yards in four plays, including the final 15 for the score to regain Pitt's two-touchdown lead, but it wasn't enough. An ill-timed and worse-executed pooch kick was still returned 49 yards by Gilyard, and Cincy needed just four plays to score.
The Bearcats missed the extra point, but after a three-and-out by Pitt they came right back with a seven-play, 68-yard drive in 3:08 and added a two-point conversion to tie the score at 38-38. Pitt returned the favor with a nine-play, 67-yard scoring drive to take a 44-38 advantage with 1:36 left, as the extra point was muffed. Quarterback Bill Stull hit wideout Jonathan Baldwin on third-and-nine for 16 yards to the 13. Lewis scored two plays later.
"We knew we had to keep scoring on them, and we did it with that drive,'' Stull said. "But we needed to do it one more time at the end, and we just couldn't get it done. They did a great job coming down to score to take the lead, but we couldn't match them one more time.''
Along with Lewis' spectacular offensive day for Pitt, Baldwin was stellar. The sophomore sensation surpassed the 1,000-yard plateau with six catches for 113 yards and two scores. Stull hit Baldwin for a beautiful 22-yard score and later on a 40-yarder off a flea-flicker. Baldwin (54 catches, 1,080 yards, eight TDs) was Pitt's first 1,000-yard receiver since Greg Lee (1,297 in 2004).
Lewis has 17 touchdowns this season, including 16 rushing, to set a freshman record originally set by LeSean McCoy in 2007. He also has the points record and in 12 games has 297 carries and 1,640 yards. Lewis is just 46 yards behind Tony Dorsett's freshman rushing record at Pitt. His 47 carries were five more than Craig Heyward had against Notre Dame in 1987.
"Blocking for Dion this year has been amazing,'' Pitt senior right offensive guard John Malecki said. "He's just a great running back, and he had a great game tonight when we really needed him.''
Notes: Stull was 13-for-21 for 176 yards and the two TDs to Baldwin, but he was picked off twice and sacked three times, including Pitt's last play. ... Other key performers were DBS Elijah Fields, Dom DeCicco and Jarred Holley with one interception each. ... Nate Nix blocked a punt and recovered it on the Cincy 5. ... Dan Hutchins kicked a 33-yard field goal and averaged 39.6 yards per punt with a long for 50 yards. ... The attendance was 63,387.
Cincinnati 45, Pitt 44
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