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December 3, 2012To some extent, Pitt's final two regular-season games were 60-minute microcosms of the uneven 2012 season as a whole:
Half the team excelled at various points while the other half struggled to keep up or capitalize, and the whole team kept its all-at-once success to rare instances. In the two most recent games, Pitt managed to outlast the unevenness and pull in wins over Rutgers and South Florida by a combined score of 54-9, but in more than a few games - say, the Panthers' six losses - that inconsistency was too much to overcome.
That has been the story of the 2012 season for Pitt: inconsistency amplified by flashes of strong play and, at times, dominance on each side of the ball. The Panthers topped the 500-yard mark on two occasions and finished with a 3,000-yard passer, a 1,000-yard rusher, and a realistic shot at getting at least one and possibly two receivers over the 1,000-yard mark.
And yet they failed to score more than 13 points at Syracuse and couldn't score necessary touchdowns at opportune times in the midst of losses to Louisville or Notre Dame.
Likewise, Pitt's defense has allowed one touchdown in the last 10 quarters of play, held seven of 12 opponents to 17 points or less, and finished No. 16 nationally in total defense and No. 21 in scoring defense.
And yet that very same defense gave up three quick touchdowns to Louisville in the pivotal third quarter, let an anemic Connecticut offense put up 24 first-half points, and allowed Notre Dame to score a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns that killed Pitt's 14-point lead.
All of which is to say nothing of the season-opening losses to Youngstown State and Cincinnati, two distant memories that saw poor play on both sides of the ball, or the uncanny win-two/lose-two pattern that this season followed, which created a series of letdowns every time the team put together back-to-back victories and seemed to be building some momentum.
Pitt has faced quite a bit of adversity this season, and the players have been presented with more than one opportunity to quit on the season. To their credit, though, they fought back and won the final two games of the regular season to clinch bowl eligibility.
"I feel like we have a tough team," redshirt junior safety Jason Hendricks said after the win over South Florida. "We don't give up, especially these last two games. We could have put it in the bag and said, 'Oh, the season's over, we're looking forward to next year.' But, no. We stood up and we won these last two."
Pitt's resiliency in 2012 is even more notable given the Panthers' recent history. The players on the current team haven't just dealt with the adversity of an uneven season; they've been dealing with the adversity of instability for two years and counting. With enough head coaches in the last two years to form a two-deep at linebacker, Pitt's players experienced some atrophy of spirit, the likes of which can be debilitating and permanent. But while the Panthers showed signs of that emotional debilitation - which sometimes manifested itself as apathy, leading head coach Paul Chryst to expound on the concept of "creating a culture" - they didn't allow the instability and uncertainty and constant change of the last two years to define them.
Pitt's players were inconsistent in their effort and performance, but they never gave up on a season that appeared, on at least six occasions, to be lost. Now, after a pair of wins to end the season, the Panthers are headed back to Birmingham for their third consecutive BBVA Compass Bowl. And while the three-peat appearance in that particular bowl can be the source of derision and mockery, the accomplishment of getting to bowl eligibility is one that Chryst isn't dismissing lightly.
"I'm proud of the players," Chryst said Saturday night. "They certainly went through a lot of things this season, but they still found a way to earn the right to play another game, and I appreciate that."