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PREGAME: Sean McDonough (a great big-game voice on par with Brent Musburger) notes that Pitt has won only one Big East title since joining the conference in 1991. As important as this game obviously is for the unbeaten Bearcats, it matters more for the Panthers, who have more of a gridiron history plus a reputation they need to overturn today.
14:50 left, first quarter: It's snowing. Let's see how the weather affects the passing game on both sides.
13:55: Pitt caved the pocket with Greg Romeus, but Cincy's Tony Pike partially drifted into the sack. A decent pass rush for the home team, but nothing alarmingly dominant.
12:00: It's the Dion Lewis show. He runs! He passes! He sounds like a product advertised on an infomercial!
10:17: Pitt should definitely go for it. The Panthers should be able to run against Cincy.
8:51: Lewis has touched the ball on every play so far for the Panthers. On future drives, this will set up play action for a bomb from Bill Stull to Jonathan Baldwin.
7:27: After 12 Dion Lewis touches, Pittsburgh rips off a 12-play touchdown drive. Truly, a perfect start for Dave Wannstedt and Co. Not one thing they could have done better so far.
6:05: Will Isaiah Pead live to regret that dropped ball in the end zone?
5:59: Another drop in the end zone.
5:52: That was not the time, Pittsburgh, to commit pass interference. Maybe when leading (or trailing) by 30, maybe in the latter stages of a blowout against a cupcake, but not now.
5:17: In just over two minutes, the Bearcats - despite their shaky (non-Mardy Gilyard) receivers, who have had the dropsies in recent weeks - tie things up and answer the Dion Lewis Show with a touchdown of their own. I have a feeling a pendulum is going to swing back and forth all game long. The game has an Oregon State-Oregon feel already.
3:44: Dion Lewis with 15 touches on Pitt's first 15 plays. Cincy still can't stop him. Good move by Panther offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti to feed his horse until the Bearcats rise up in response.
2:58: Finally, Lewis with a breather as Ray Graham gets a carry.
2:31: Back to Lewis for a 3rd-and-3 completion. Hello, Bearcats defense. Anybody home?
1:30: Not again! That possible Cincinnati interception (ruled incomplete) has to be reviewed by the Big East replay booth, but it isn't. Absolutely horrible in a championship game. Brutal.
End of first quarter score: Cincinnati 7, Pittsburgh 7. And this just in: Replay booths continue to be the abominations that cause college football desolation.
14:13 left, second quarter: Oh, Brian Kelly should be livid. His team had a possible interception (ruled incomplete on the field) that wasn't reviewed and subsequently overturned, but Pittsburgh has an incomplete pass reviewed and overturned for a (legitimate) Jonathan Baldwin touchdown. One team gets a replay review, one doesn't, and that's your difference so far: 14-7, Panthers.
12:33: Cincy's offensive front is winning the pass protection battle against the Panthers' front four.
11:39: The officials said the hit by Pitt's Dom Decicco was high. It was also late, after the ball hit the ground. Good call.
11:33: That was not a good call, to say the least.
11:21: Pike had no reason to keep drifting to his right on that throwback pass. He also had no reason to make that throw from an off-balance position. The ball was underthrown because of poor mechanics and deficient footwork.
11:15: Color me surprised that Kelly didn't give Isaiah Pead at least one running play from the 2. The Bearcats - who had 1st and goal just a few moments ago - are now genuinely lucky to merely get three, as Pitt drops an interception on a deflected ball.
10:28: Great mix from Cignetti, who now uses the threat of the run to set up a vertical passing game. With that said, UC cornerback Drew Frey completely misjudged that Bill Stull aerial to Baldwin, who snags the flea-flicker bomb for six points.
9:25: This feels a lot like the 2009 Orange Bowl against Virginia Tech. Pike is making lazy throws and bad decisions. Paging Zach Collaros? It's worth a thought.
8:00: Cincy defenders had Lewis behind the line of scrimmage on third down, and once again whiffed. This is turning into a disaster for the temporarily unbeaten Bearcats. It's getting away from them already, and we've only played a quarter and a half.
6:09: Lewis runs right through two UC defenders who formed a mini-wall. Embarrassingly bad defense for the Bearcats, whose worst nightmares are coming true.
4:53: That is a nice stop for the Bearcats, without question, but Pitt adds to its lead (now 24-10) and reduces the margin for error in the UC offensive huddle. Moreover, Pitt gets the ball first in the second half. The Cats must score a touchdown on this drive, in other words. MUST.
2:49: Instead of a must-score drive, Cincinnati is now four yards from being scored on again. Blame the punter for a low kick and for a poor sense of awareness on the field.
1:26: One team is soaring, in full flight and at the top of its powers, while the other is reeling in a sea of despondency and mental weakness. In the past, Pittsburgh football drowned in these kinds of consequential contests. Not today. It's Cincinnati's time to pull a face-plant in a big game. Full credit to the Panthers for getting it right; they look awesome.
1:10: That was a remotely important play for Cincinnati, don't you think? It merely saved UC's season... at least for the next 5-10 minutes of real time.
0:44: Wow. If Cincinnati can travel less than half the field in 44 seconds, this will be a seven-point game. Unreal.
0:34: We should see Zach Collaros in the second half.
0:24: SCRATCH THAT! We should see Zach Collaros NOW, after the second interception in as many plays!
0:03: Brian Kelly, you're not going to make a 55-yard field goal in the snow. Please. Terrible decision; not gonna become Notre Dame's next coach with these moves. Where's Collaros?
Halftime score: Pittsburgh 31, Cincinnati 17.
13:12 left, third quarter: Pike is still in, and he mangles his first throw of the second half. Where's Collaros, Mr. Kelly?
12:24: Any momentum Cincy might have had going into halftime evaporated on that painfully bad three-and-out. No rhythm for UC right now. Cincinnati does have a second quality quarterback option, you know...
11:47: ESPN/ABC sideline reporter Holly Rowe says Collaros will be in on the next series. Kelly was late to the dance on that one, but at least he arrived. However, if Pitt takes this drive into the end zone, it might not matter.
9:57: Just when Cincinnati's defense appeared ready to curl up into a fetal position, the Bearcats have forced a string of three-and-outs, and have given the ball to Zach Collaros with the deficit a still-manageable 14 points. If Cincy's going to mount a comeback, it has to start now. If UC scores here, do note that Bill Stull has lost confidence over the past few drives for Pitt.
9:52: Holly Rowe is a terrific reporter and a great pro, but she whiffed with her report. Pike stays in.
8:55: A questionable Cincinnati catch needs to be reviewed in the Big East replay booth. A tired refrain.
8:47: More lousy footwork from Pike.
8:12: Pitt's secondary, which has been really good today, suffers a bust, and a lob pass from Pike (it wasn't pretty, but it was effective) hits Gilyard, who jukes a defender and finishes off a 68-yard touchdown play. Game on.
7:33: For the first two and a half quarters, the focus has been on Cincinnati and the Bearcats' struggles. Now, after tasting adversity for the first time all day, the Pittsburgh Panthers step into the spotlight. How will they handle the pressure?
4:29: Not the kind of response Wannstedt was hoping for. The noose tightening around the necks of the blue-shirted boys.
2:51: Now that was a confident throw by Pike. It's been seen rather infrequently today. Momentum reversed, psychology switched.
2:22: UNTIL THEN! Pike with a mind-numbingly bad blunder. Cincy's signal caller throws a pop-up to Pitt's centerfielder on 1st and 10. There are no words for a mistake that horrible.
0:15: Stull badly needed that third-down-converting completion to Baldwin. A huge boost for his confidence, and a vital sustainer of possession, field position, and holistic well-being for the Pitt football family at this fragile point in the proceedings.
End of third quarter score: Pittsburgh 31, Cincinnati 24.
14:52 left, fourth quarter: Just as I talk up Stull, he - like Pike - throws a pick. Guess I should refrain from complimenting quarterbacks if I want to see more offense in this contest.
14:38: Pike really blew it. If he lays out the deep ball and makes Gilyard run, it's a long-bomb touchdown. Instead, a short-armed throw leads to one very big missed opportunity for Cincinnati.
14:17: Jake Rogers has had a terrible game punting for Cincinnati.
12:41: No need for the Panthers to throw if Lewis can deliver the goods.
12:26: Goods - and perhaps a Sugar Bowl berth - delivered. Touchdown, Lewis.
11:44: Pike made a mindless throw without moving the defense (with his eyes), but Pitt couldn't pick it off in the end zone.
11:09: The Bearcats are right back in this thing, but they need to score when down by seven points, not (just) 14.
11:09: Or maybe when they're down by eight points and not seven. Collaros - the holder for the PAT - put the ball down quite late, and Rogers misses the boot. 38-30, Panthers.
9:31: A quick stop by Cincy, but why does one have the sense that the missed PAT looms over this game like a long, dark shadow?
7:08: Yawn. Cincy moving the ball, but all that matters is that 2-point try coming up...
6:38: Collaros still can't hold the ball cleanly.
6:09: Pitt - flop-sweat-drenched, slip-on-the-banana-peel Pitt - bails out Collaros with a brain-dead penalty. The Panthers, in the second half, have made the mistakes that poured forth from the Cincy side in the first two and a half quarters.
5:46: Wanna guess who stepped up big on the tying 2-point try? Yeah. Gilyard. 38-all.
5:35: This is a classic moment of reckoning for Pitt. A program is faced with the specter of its pratfall-filled past. Can the Panthers summon up the mental toughness that's proven to be so manifestly elusive this decade?
3:35: So far, so good, for the Panthers on this momentous drive. Already on the fringe of field goal range.
2:44: That horrible reversal of a face mask call on Cincinnati shows why ALL PLAYS within the realm of reason should be subject to replay review. That drum needs to be banged in the offseason... hard.
2:32: The most important throw Bill Stull has ever made, hands down.
1:36: Charlie Weis's last game for Notre Dame and Brian Kelly's possible swan song for Cincinnati look quite similar, wouldn't you say? That bit aside, titanic response from Bill Stull, Dion Lewis, Jonathan Baldwin, and the whole gang.
1:36: NO! That did NOT just happen! Are you KIDDING???
1:30: It's Tony Pike's brain versus Pitt's snake-bitten past. Buckle up...
0:39: Cincy does have two timeouts, and just as I type that, Kelly calls the timeout so that no seconds are wasted after the re-start following the moving of the chains. Good use of a timeout, even though some might say that Pitt's on its heels. Cincy needs time more than momentum here.
0:33: When Pitt biffed the previous PAT, did you really think anything else would happen? Cincinnati 45, Pittsburgh 44. Still time for Stull, but still...
0:17: Little time left, but Cincy could have sealed it with a pick. You never know...
0:10: Pitt needs Frenchy Fuqua, Terry Bradshaw, and Franco Harris.
0:03: Play action, Pitt? You're on your own 18 with 10 seconds left. High comedy at the end of a tragedy.
0:00: Cincinnati defends its Big East title, but in a moment like this, my heart and head can only think about the awful, sick, rock-bottom feelings being absorbed by the Pittsburgh Panthers. That was a Chicago Cub-like second-half collapse, complete with a Leon Durham-ish error on an extra point snap, driven home by a Will Clark (I mean, Tony Pike) touchdown dagger. No kids deserve what Pitt's players are confronting in these miserable minutes. This is especially the case for Bill Stull, who threw crucial interceptions in the second half, only to rebound when it mattered but then lose because of events beyond his control. Such is the passion and heartbreak of major college football.
Cincinnati, we'll see you in the Sugar Bowl against the SEC runner-up. Tony Pike, bring a clear mind to the Superdome; if you do, the nation's football fans will be in for a treat.
Final score: Cincinnati 45, Pittsburgh 44. Cincinnati wins the 2009 Big East title.