The Big East is 2-for-2, and Pitt's 19-17 win over North Carolina was pretty impressive, considering it came in basically a road game in Charlotte at the Meineke Car Care Bowl.
The big news was that the Panthers notched their first 10-win season since 1981, though that Dan Marino-led team went 11-1 instead of 10-3. Still, it represents progress for Dave Wannstedt's program and gives Pitt something to build upon.
"Ten wins separates you, and I don't think these guys know what they have accomplished here tonight and probably won't for a few weeks or a month or however long," Wannstedt said. "I think that people know that we are back as a program, and you have to go out and prove it. You have to show up and you have to play and you have to win games like this."
On Wednesday, I presented three keys for Pitt in this game: Make North Carolina's offense work to score instead of giving up a special teams or defensive big play; protect quarterback Bill Stull against the heavy Tar Heels pass rush and get tight end Dorin Dickerson involved.
While North Carolina put together a couple of nice drives, its offense finished with just 264 total yards. Stull didn't throw any interceptions and Pitt didn't give up any damaging special teams plays. The Pitt offensive line yielded two sacks, but Stull had plenty of time most of the day and the Panthers won the battle up front. Dickerson had four catches for 21 yards but dropped a touchdown pass early. He just hasn't looked the same the last three games, and you have to wonder if he's fully healthy.
But Mike Shanahan stepped up with five big catches, including some tough ones over the middle, and it looks like he can be the key possession receiver to Jonathan Baldwin's deep threat next season. Combine that with another year from the amazing Dion Lewis, and that's an awfully good start for 2010, even if Pitt has to replace three offensive line starters and break in a new quarterback.
It was good way for the Panthers to end things after they lost their last two regular-season games in the final minute. Of course, they also beat UConn in the final seconds, so the odds probably worked out. This game will long be remembered by Pitt fans for the 17-play, 8:47 drive that led to the winning field goal. To do that against the No. 6 rated defense in the FBS was particularly special.
"The series or two before we came unglued a little bit," Wannstedt said. "We were not lined up, we were hurrying a bit, we had a bad snap, we had a penalty. So our guys went out there and there was no room for error. For our guys to go out there and complete that many plays in a row for the most part successfully says a lot about the focus and discipline of our kids."
Pittsburgh should wind up in the Top 15 and should be ranked to start next season despite some major personnel losses, including Stull, Dickerson, those O-linemen, defensive tackle Mick Williams, linebacker Adam Gunn and cornerback Aaron Berry. Junior defensive end Greg Romeus could opt for the NFL as well. But in addition to the offensive core I mentioned earlier, the Panthers still have rising young talent like linebacker Dan Mason, who grabbed a crucial interception at the goal line.
You have to make Pitt one of the early favorites in the Big East in 2010. Totally different feeling than after last year's Sun Bowl, huh?