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May 27, 2013

Countdown to Labor Day: 98

The countdown to the start of the 2013 season is under way, as Pitt is 98 days away from its Labor Day opener against Florida State at Heinz Field. Panther-Lair.com is counting down the days until the biggest season opener in recent memory.

Today's number is 98, so we're looking back at the 1998 season.

1998 wasn't a hot year for Pitt football. A year earlier, the Panthers, under first-year head coach Walt Harris had rebounded from the mid-90's slump in a major way, upsetting Miami and Virginia Tech at Pitt Stadium and ending the regular season with a triple-overtime instant classic at West Virginia. The win in Morgantown clinched bowl eligibility for Pitt, sending the Panthers to the postseason for the first time since 1989.

1998 was a different story. Gone was Pete Gonzalez, the gun-slinging hero of the fourth-and-17 play that set up the game-winning touchdown in Morgantown. Replacing him was Matt Lytle, who had been the Panthers' starting quarterback in 1996 and threw for 16 touchdowns and 14 interceptions when he reclaimed the job in 1998.

The season opened under auspicious circumstances with a 48-41 win over Villanova before Pitt dropped back-to-back games against Penn State and Virginia Tech. The Panthers bounced back to shut out Akron 35-0, but the team wouldn't taste victory again that season, dropping the next seven games to finish 2-9 overall and 0-7 in the Big East.

Pitt only posted two winless conference records over the 20-year course of its membership in the Big East. The first was the miserable 1995 season (eclipsed in its misery by the following season, although the Panthers won three conference games in 1996); the second was 1998, when Pitt was outscored by an average of 17 points per game in Big East contests.

The year ended in particularly ugly fashion, with blowout losses at Miami (38-10) and at home against West Virginia (52-14).

1998 wasn't a total waste, though. Despite the 2-9 and 0-7 records, the 1998 team laid the foundation for the turnaround that was to come, as that season marked the debuts of a few players whose productivity would define the program's turn-of-the-century rebound and make a lasting mark on the record books.

Chief among the breakouts of 1998 was receiver Latef Grim, who burst onto the scene with eight catches for 192 yards and three touchdowns in the season opener against Villanova. He became Pitt's primary offensive weapon that season and finished with 906 receiving yards and nine touchdowns on 60 receptions. A two-time team captain and two-time All-Big East first-teamer, Grim caught 178 passes for 2,680 yards and 15 touchdowns in three active seasons at Pitt, and he finished as the Panthers' all-time leader in career receptions and ranks third in career receiving yards.

1998 also saw the debut of Bryan Knight, who had arrived at Pitt a year earlier as a wide receiver and moved to outside linebacker before settling at defensive end, where he would become one of the best defensive linemen in the nation. Knight finished his career with 23.5 sacks, which ranks among the top ten in school history. Included in those 23.5 sacks were three in Pitt's 12-0 win in the 2000 game against Penn State.

1998 was also notable for the debuts of kicker Nick Lotz, who ranks No. 6 on Pitt's all-time scoring list, and linebacker Amir Purifoy, who ranks No. 21 in career tackles. That year was also the coming-out party for running back Kevan Barlow, who was the Panthers' leading rusher in 1998 and went on to place in Pitt's all-time top ten for career rushing with 2,330 yards on 481 carries.

1998 was not a good year for Pitt, but with the likes of Grim, Barlow, Knight, Purifoy , and Hank Poteat entering their primes - and players like Rod Rutherford and Antonio Bryant about to join the team - the Panthers were on the upswing.

Countdown: 99 - Hugh Green
Countdown: 100 - A look at Pitt in 1913

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