The table was set, but Pitt chose not to feast.
Three weeks ago, the Panthers were 3-0 in the Big East and held a two-game lead over their nearest competition in the conference standings. With a win at Connecticut on November 11th, Pitt's ensuing victory at South Florida would have given the Panthers a virtual death-lock on a share of the conference championship and the inside path to the league's BCS bid.
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Instead, Pitt fell to the Huskies, 30-28, in a game full of mistakes and miscues. But after the Panthers beat South Florida to improve to 4-1 in the Big East, last Friday's Backyard Brawl against West Virginia presented Pitt with another opportunity to keep the conference title in reach.
Instead, the Panthers were thumped by their rival, 35-10, in front of 60,000-plus at Heinz Field. Now Pitt is 4-2 in the Big East, tied with Connecticut and West Virginia. The Huskies hold head-to-head tie-breaker advantages over both the Panthers and Mountaineers.
Now, in order to reach a BCS bowl, Pitt (6-5, 4-2) needs to win at Cincinnati (4-7, 2-4) in the season finale on Saturday, and have West Virginia (8-3, 4-2) and Connecticut (7-4, 4-2) lose.
"We keep falling short in the big games," sophomore running back Ray Graham said after the West Virginia game. "We have our opportunities; we're just not capitalizing on them."
And the trend extends beyond the 2010 season. Last year, Pitt had to beat Cincinnati in the finale at Heinz Field to make its first BCS bowl appearance since the 2004 season. In 2008, the Panthers had to beat the Bearcats in Cincinnati to keep their chances of clinching the Big East alive.
Both times, Pitt came up short.
"It's the same old story," redshirt senior offensive tackle Jason Pinkston said on Friday. "We just didn't step up. We didn't answer the challenge."
"I feel anger inside of me, just to be so close and keep falling to second and third place," senior defensive end Jabaal Sheard said. "You get your hopes so high and you just get crushed at the end. It's sad, but we have to learn how to finish and finish strong and make plays."
The theme of finishing isn't just limited to an individual game. Under Dave Wannstedt, Pitt has struggled to close out seasons. Over the past five years, the Panthers have posted a 9-11 mark in the final four games of each season. That includes an 0-4 record in 2006, when Pitt needed just one win to get bowl-eligible for the first time in Wannstedt's tenure as head coach.
Pitt only posted one winning record in the final four regular-season games under Wannstedt - 3-1 in 2008 before losing the Sun Bowl 3-0 to Oregon State - and with a 1-2 record in the final quarter of the 2010 season, that trend will continue.
For a team that preaches the importance of finishing strong, Pitt has done a remarkable job of finishing weak every season.
"We run to death, we've been working since the summer; we had our opportunity right in front of us and we didn't take advantage of it," Sheard said.
If Pitt beats Cincinnati on Saturday, the Panthers will finish 7-5 and likely find themselves in the BBVA Compass Bowl, held January 8th in Birmingham, Ala., although if Connecticut loses at South Florida and West Virginia loses to Rutgers at home, Pitt could find itself in a BCS bowl.