With a 28-10 win at Cincinnati on Saturday, Pitt clinched a share of the Big East championship, tying Connecticut and West Virginia at 5-2 in the conference. But after the game, the players said that beating the Bearcats was about more than winning a co-championship.
"Just to win, period; that was my goal coming in," senior defensive end Jabaal Sheard said after the game. "I hate going out with a loss; how can you leave the game with a loss? I told the guys, forget the Big East and forget the ring; just play for us. Go out there and ball."
This season marks the second time Pitt (7-5, 5-2) has won a share of the Big East championship. In 2004, the Panthers posted a 4-2 record in the conference, tying with Boston College, West Virginia, and Syracuse. Once the tie-breakers were sorted out, the Panthers ended up as the Big East's BCS representative.
This season, Connecticut held the tie-breaker advantage over Pitt and WVU, so the Huskies will face Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. To Pitt's players, that date with the Sooners was supposed to be theirs, but they couldn't hold on to a two-game lead in the conference standings and lost two crucial games to Connecticut and WVU. Now the Panthers will face Kentucky (6-6, 2-6 in SEC play) in the BBVA Compass Bowl at Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala., on January 8.
The West Virginia was loss was particularly troubling. Pitt looked unmotivated and disinterested in a 35-10 drubbing at the hands of the Panthers' archrival. That game was the season's penultimate matchup, and the loss virtually guaranteed that Pitt would be playing in a lesser Big East-affiliated bowl rather than a BCS bowl.
So, with no real shot at the BCS, the Panthers decided to band together and put in one of their best performances in the season finale at Cincinnati.
"Truly, the bottom line at the end of the day (is that) there wasn't talk about getting a Big East trophy, there wasn't talk about getting a ring, there wasn't talk about revenge on Cincinnati," Wannstedt said. "It was really focused us winning and ending the regular season feeling good about our football team."
"We have great team chemistry and we love our seniors," said sophomore running back Dion Lewis, who rushed for career highs of 261 yards and four touchdowns on Saturday. "We were disappointed that we couldn't get the win [against West Virginia], but we wanted to come out today and play hard for those guys."
Redshirt junior Max Gruder said he was also glad that Pitt's seniors could end their final regular season on a high note, even if that note is a few steps below the season's expectations.
"It's great to send the seniors out like that," Gruder said. "We're not going to the BCS, but we are getting rings for our seniors, sending them out with a ring as part of a championship, which was our ultimate goal. It's not in the original way that we planned it, but we are still co-champions of the Big East and we get a ring for our seniors and momentum going into the next game and next season."
Sheard added that the team had extra motivation in addition to finishing the season on a high note.
"We're happy we got this win, just to take a lot of pressure off of [Wannstedt]. There was a lot of negativity around us, and guys just erased it out of their mind and focused on the game."
A final decision has yet to be made on Wannstedt's future at Pitt, but technically, he has coached Pitt to a share of the Big East championship, even if that title rings a little hollow given the way the 2010 season played out.
"We don't get to go to the BCS bowl, obviously, but it was nice to end on a positive note and be a part of a championship," said senior safety Dom DeCicco.