Pitt's Special Teams, Not So Much

One play might not make or break a game since there are 60 minutes and numerous plays by both teams, but one surely knocked the Pitt football team for a loop Saturday afternoon at Heinz Field.

The Panthers lost to Cincinnati, 45-44, in a game that determined the Big East champion and Conference's BCS Bowl representative. But the Bearcats' special teams was much more special than Pittsburgh, and one play in particular changed the momentum immensely.

The Panthers had just scored to take a 31-10 advantage with 1:10 remaining before halftime and kicked off to Cincinnati. Spectacular wideout Mardy Gilyard got his hands on the ball and yanked momentum toward the Bearcats with a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. The Panthers had a difficult time regaining their edge in the second half, even though they never lost it on the scoreboard.

The first time the score was tied was 38-38 with 5:46 remaining in the game, and the only Cincinnati lead was the final score.

"We knew Gilyard was good,'' Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "The first three kickoffs, he didn't get past the 25. (But) I thought the kickoff return for a touchdown completely changed the momentum of the game. I thought we had it in the first half.''

Actually, the Panthers contained Gilyard all together. He had just four returns for 82 yards prior to the big return, and Cincinnati didn't start a drive beyond Pitt's 28-yard line up to then, either. He also caught just one pass for 19 yards.

"We knew what kind of special teams they had,'' Pitt senior right offensive guard John Malecki said.

Cincinnati entered the game averaging 26.6 yards per kickoff return to lead the Big East Conferance and rank sixth nationally.

"There are three phases to the game,'' Pitt sixth-year senior middle linebacker Adam Gunn said. "(That's) offense, defense and special teams. No one phase lost the game. We could have made one more play anywhere.''

Pitt's offense matched Cincinnati blow for blow with 369 total yards on 76 plays, nearly 200 rushing, and the defense tallied two sacks and nine quarterback hurries. But the special teams couldn't make that big play to make a difference for the Panthers.

"We came out and played as hard as we could, and it just didn't fall our way,'' Mick Williams said. "It's a tough way to end my career at Heinz Field, but I really don't know how to describe. It just hurts.''

Gilyard finished with five catches for 118 yards and one 68-yard touchdown and had seven kickoff returns for 256 yards and the one score. He also returned one punt for seven yards.

Pitt's Aaron Smith had 32 yards on two punt returns, and Cameron Saddler returned six kickoffs for 123 yards. Ray Graham had two for 18, so neither was able to break loose.

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