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June 1, 2013

Countdown to Labor Day: 93

The countdown to the start of the 2013 season is under way, as Pitt is 93 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 93, so we're looking at the only 9-3 season in the history of Pitt football:


The calendar year of 1982 started quite pleasantly with Pitt's 24-20 win over Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, and the Panthers were expected to carry the momentum of that 11-1 season - the program's third 11-1 season in a row - into the new year. Pitt had lost three players to the NFL from the 1981 team, but none was drafted higher than the seventh round, and the Panthers had absorbed much bigger losses in the prior year's draft - 12 total draft picks, including three first-rounders - and turned in one of the greatest seasons in school history.

Besides, star quarterback Dan Marino was coming back for his senior year in 1982, running back Bryan Thomas was ready to build on his 1,000-yard performance from the previous season, and offensive tackle Jimbo Covert was all-everything, as were center Bill Maas, offensive tackle Bill Fralic, defensive back Tim Lewis, defensive end Chris Doleman and defensive tackle Bill Maas.

A lot was in place for Pitt heading into the 1982 season, but there was one major change. Following the Sugar Bowl, Jackie Sherrill left Pitt to be the head coach at Texas A&M, and he was replaced by Serafino "Foge" Fazio, a true "Pitt man" who had played for the Panthers in the late 1950's and was an assistant coach on Sherrill's staff.

Fazio's run as head coach at Pitt started well enough, as the Panthers rattled off seven consecutive wins to open the 1982 season. But Gerry Faust's six-win Notre Dame team took a 31-16 win at Pitt Stadium in November, and the Panthers dropped the season finale to rival Penn State at Beaver Stadium 19-10. Pitt finished the season with a New Year's Day loss to No. 2 SMU in the Cotton Bowl, which happened to be the final game for the Mustangs' "Pony Express" backfield.

The Cotton Bowl was also the final college game for Marino, whose senior season didn't quite go as planned: he threw for 2,432 yards, 17 touchdowns and 23 interceptions. Pitt's offense as a whole fell off from 1981's productivity, as Pitt's scoring average dropped by more than seven points per game.

Thomas more or less lived up to his billing with 955 rushing yards, and he also led the Panthers in receiving as he caught 54 passes for 404 yards and a touchdown.

One other statistic of note: kicker Eric Shubert set a Pitt record for the most PAT's in a single game when he kicked nine extra points against Louisville.

Incidentally, that game against Louisville - a 63-14 win at Pitt Stadium - was just the third meeting between the Panthers and Cardinals, who would later become annual opponents as members of the Big East. And 1982 also saw the second Pitt-Rutgers matchup; the Panthers won that game 52-6 at Pitt Stadium, and in the first two games of the series, Pitt held a 99-9 combined scoring advantage.

Four of Pitt's 1982 opponents also appear on the Panthers' 2013 schedule. Pitt opened the 1982 season with a 7-6 win over North Carolina at Three Rivers Stadium; the next week the Panthers went to Tallahassee and beat Florida State 37-17. Pitt got another win over a 2013 opponent with an October trip to Syracuse, but the Panthers lost to Notre Dame in November, the first loss of the season.

While 1982's 9-3 record was disappointing in light of the three 11-1 seasons that came before it, that record was better than what the future held, as Pitt went 8-3-1 in 1983, 3-7-1 in 1984, and 5-5-1 in 1985, which ended up being Fazio's final season as head coach of the Panthers.

There's no questioning the talent of the 1982 Panthers, though. Covert, Lewis, Marino, Maas, Doleman, and Fralic were all first-round draft picks (as was tackle Bob Buczkowski, who was a freshman on the 1982 team), and a total of 22 players from the team were selected over the course of the next four NFL drafts.

Countdown: 94 - The statistical oddity of 1994
Countdown: 95 - A relentless player and his dominant season
Countdown: 96 - The biggest win in Pitt history
Countdown: 97 - A dominant current Panther
Countdown: 98 - A transition year
Countdown: 99 - Hugh Green
Countdown: 100 - A look at Pitt in 1913

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