Pitt's Seniors: It's Not What We Wanted

While his friends and teammates slowly left Heinz Field for the Pitt locker room, fifth-year senior defensive tackle Gus Mustakas stayed for a while.

It's not that he wanted to find some solace in being alone, because Gus Mustakas watched Cincinnati celebrate. The Bearcats beat Pittsburgh 45-44 Saturday and were in the mood to party. They were 12-0, kept the River City Rivalry Trophy, won the Big East and were going to a BCS Bowl for the second straight year.

So, why would Mustakas want to witness what eluded the Panthers?

"I don't know why I watched their celebration,'' Mustakas said. "Just to see it, I guess, but I was stuck out there watching them. I give a lot of credit to them, because they were way down and busted their butts to get back into it and win the game. ... And we just didn't get the stops that we needed at the end.

"So, I got into the locker room a little late because I stayed out there to watch the Cincinnati celebration. We just have to keep our heads up, and the young guys have to learn from this so it doesn't happen again. Now, we have to focus on our bowl game and see if we can't win that.''

By the way Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt and the players looked when they entered the interview room, it was quite emotional in the locker room afterward. Wannstedt, though, noted that he didn't say much.

"It was quiet,'' Wannstedt said. "I was proud of them. I was proud of how they played and extremely proud of how they prepared. The leadership on this team is what you need to win a championship.

"And I would hope that the younger guys would take note what (the seniors) did to lead this team from the offseason to now. We're close, and we're a lot closer than a year ago and light years from where we were four years ago. So, it's important now to keep recruiting and keep rebuilding.''

Senior right offensive guard John Malecki has endured as much as anybody during his four years, loss upon loss early while playing defense and back-to-back 9-3 regular seasons while on the O-line. He's played hurt, and he's played healthy. And he is hopeful that the example he and the other seniors set in recent years made an impact for the future.

"This is going to be a tough game to get past, but we have to do it. We need to move on to our bowl game and do our best to get ready for that. We can still get 10 wins, and that needs to be our focus now. ... How well we respond will be a reflection on our leaders. We know that was the last time that we'll ever be in that locker room with this team, and that's what we said to the young guys.

"We wanted them to not get distracted by this loss. Sure, it was tough, but we can still finish with a positive. Something positive can still happen here, and we need that. We need that 10th win, a bowl win, to end this season. It's really disappointing, losing by a point, and it's going to be tough to overcome. But we need to do it. Winning a bowl game is the best we can do right now.''

Few Panthers have been ultimate team players like senior tight end Nate Byham the past four years. A blue-chip recruit, Byham never realized the statistical success others have with his ability because he never was used that way. Then, after a decent junior year, Byham was ready to explode.

Instead, fellow senior Dorin Dickerson got the majority of the big plays from the tight end position. But Byham's future might be brighter due to his unselfishness. He bulked up to 260-plus pounds and improved his blocking skills. This type of skill level as a blocker and pass-catcher don't come along every day for the NFL, but Byham wasn't looking there just yet.

"We worked hard for this, and we put ourselves in a perfect position,'' Byham said. "This is where we wanted to be. When I came here four years ago, and even five years ago I said I wanted to come to Pitt. I wanted to win a Big East championship. I wanted to be part of something special, and we put ourselves in place for it. But they're a great team. They weren't 11-0 for no reason.

"They played well together, and at the end of the game they made more big plays then we did. And you can't pin it on one area. ... In every aspect of this game, there were plays that could have been made and should have been made. And they're ones we usually make and even easily make them. So, luck is part of it. Luck just doesn't fall your way all the time, and it didn't today.''

Pitt still has one more game, a bowl contest to end the season, but that was far, far away at this point after the game.

"I really haven't thought about that,'' Wannstedt said. "I was convinced that we were going to win this game. I really was, and our football team was.''

But in the end, there was nothing but heartache for the Panthers, and all they could do was watch while Cincinnati celebrated.

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