Pitt on the rise, but Big East hurdle remains

PITTSBURGH -- Greg Romeus hadn't watched any film from Pittsburgh's 45-44 loss to Cincinnati in last year's regular-season finale until earlier this month. Throwing the tape on almost made him throw up.

"It was disgusting," he said.

Dion Lewis has viewed the game a couple of times and says it makes him "sick to my stomach."

The nausea from that defeat lingers for the Panthers, who let a three-touchdown first-half lead and a 14-point fourth-quarter edge evaporate against the Bearcats. A missed extra point and a touchdown pass by Tony Pike to Armon Binns in the final minute decided the Big East title.

"It's hard just to think about it," Pitt senior left tackle Jason Pinkston said. "We're up 21 points, and then there's a bad play by the offense here and a bad play by the defense there and the next thing you know it's 45-44 and we're like, 'What the heck just happened?' We should have been in the Sugar Bowl."

Actually, Pittsburgh could have won the last the two Big East titles. The Panthers have arguably had the most overall talent in the league, but they couldn't beat Cincinnati either year.

The program has steadily climbed under Dave Wannstedt, reaching the Top 10 last November, winning 10 games for the first time in more than a quarter of a century and beating North Carolina in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. But the Meineke Car Care Bowl is a long way from the BCS. And with the Bearcats going through a coaching change this season, the timing couldn't be better for a breakthrough year.

"We're a team that expects to win the Big East," quarterback Tino Sunseri said. "We know what it's like to see Cincinnati celebrating on our field. We understand how close we've been and what we need to do to go the extra step."

There aren't many excuses for Pitt this year. Lewis, the Big East's reigning offensive MVP and rookie of the year, returns after running for 1,799 yards and 17 touchdowns as a freshman. Romeus, the Big East's co-defensive MVP last year, decided to wait on the NFL draft and come back for his senior year. Jonathan Baldwin, a 6-foot-5 athletic freak who had 1,111 yards receiving last year, should challenge for the Biletnikoff Award this season.

"If you look all around the country, you can't think of too many teams that last year had a receiver go over 1,000 yards and a running back go over 1,700 yards," Baldwin said. "Teams don't know what to expect, whether we're going to pound the ball down your throat or throw it."

The spring raised questions about the interior offensive line, tight end and cornerback, and Sunseri will try to replace fifth-year senior Bill Stull under center. A difficult nonconference schedule awaits, including a trip to Utah for the opener and games against Miami and Notre Dame.

But Wannstedt has recruited scores of athletes and boasts depth and skill all over the roster. One thing he knows: this team is hungry to get over the hump. Wannstedt hasn't even had to mention the Cincinnati game during the offseason.

"Those experiences are something you can't talk about or read out of a magazine," he said. "I think guys have got to feel that. Our guys have, and they know that we're capable. If we don't [win the Big East], it won't be for a lack of focus or a lack of want to. I just hope we can come along at some positions and be good enough."

Until that happens, the nausea won't go away.

"Nobody on this team is going to forget," Lewis said. "It's going to eat away at people until we win a Big East championship."