The countdown to the start of the 2013 season is under way, as Pitt is 44 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 44, so we're looking at one of the most unfortunate scores in Pitt history.
There are certain numbers that should always mean something to Pitt fans.
Like nine, for the number of total national championships claimed by the football program. Or 1976, for the last - and most recognized - football national championship. Or the retired jersey numbers 33, 13 and 99 (for Tony Dorsett, Dan Marino and Hugh Green, respectively) since they represent three of the greatest players to ever wear Pitt uniforms.
There are notable scores, too, that should always resonate with Pitt fans. Like 13-9, for the 2007 Backyard Brawl that saw the 4-7 Panthers - underdogs by 28.5 points - upset No. 2 West Virginia, thus eliminating the Mountaineers from their very realistic dream of playing for a national championship.
Or 48-14, the score of the 1981 Pitt-Penn State game, when the No. 1 Panthers were primed and ready to play for the program's tenth title, even staking themselves a two-touchdown lead in the first quarter, only to watch the hated Nittany Lions score 48 unanswered points.
There's another, more recent score that still resonates with Pitt fans and undoubtedly will for quite some time:
Like 13-9 and 48-14, the score itself is relevant and tells a story. The score "13-9" tells how Pitt's outstanding defense that carried the game that night in Morgantown. The score "48-14" tells how Pitt took a commanding lead in the first quarter, only to watch it all slip away.
The score "45-44" is relevant because, in that combination of four digits and a hyphen is the image of a bobbled PAT snap, the image of one measly point being left on the field, one point that would have protected the Panthers from their eventual fate.
The blow-by-blow events of December 5, 2009, don't necessarily need to be retold here. Instead, a brief summary will suffice:
In the de facto Big East championship game, with a BCS bowl bid on the line, Pitt jumped out to a 31-10 lead in the second quarter before a Mardy Gilyard kick return changed the course of the game. The Panthers held on, though, and took a 38-24 lead early in the fourth quarter, but even that wasn't enough. With less than two minutes left, Pitt scored again to break a 38-38 tie, but the bobbled extra point left the Panthers with a perilous and vulnerable six-point lead. Cincinnati drove the field in 1:03, scored the game-tying touchdown and kicked the game-winning extra point.
For those in attendance on that blustery December afternoon, the day won't soon be forgotten. Pitt came that close - that close - to finally and proverbially getting over the top. The Dave Wannstedt era came that close - that close - to its pinnacle.
In a way, that turned out to be the pinnacle of the era after all. Pitt went on to beat North Carolina in a bowl game matchup and finished the 2009 season with a 10-3 record, the first Pitt team since 1981 to win 10 games. The next year, the Panthers fell victim to many on and off-field adversaries, and Wannstedt was fired after a 7-5 regular season.
Pitt fans won't soon forget 13-9. They won't forget 1976. And few will ever forget 45-44.
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