PITTSBURGH -- The body language from Jabaal Sheard and Greg Romeus told the story.
After Cincinnati scored with 33 seconds left to take a 45-44 lead, Pittsburgh's two star defensive ends wore a look of utter shock as they made a slow trudge off the field. Perhaps it hit them then how coming so close had sent them so far away from their goals.
Instead of winning the Big East and the league's BCS bid, the Panthers (9-3, 5-2 Big East) now are likely headed to the Papajohns.com Bowl in Birmingham. Just two weeks ago, they were 9-1 and in the Top 10. But they finished with two straight, last-minute defeats and now sport the same record as last year's team.
"I thought this year was an improvement, but we just came up short in the end," defensive tackle Mick Williams said. "Sorry to the city and the fans."
Head coach Dave Wannstedt tried to look on the positive side and the big picture.
"We're close," he said. "We're a lot closer than we were a year ago. We're light years from where we were four years ago. It's important to keep recruiting and keep building."
But this was a great opportunity wasted. Pitt is, in many people's opinion, the most purely talented team in the league. Their veteran offensive and defensive lines can stack up with anybody. They led Cincinnati 31-10 in the first at home. They were also up 38-24 in the fourth quarter and scored to take the lead again with 1:36 left.
Perhaps the cruelest part is that a missed extra point made a huge difference in the end. Holder Andrew Janocko appeared to bobble the snap, which prevented a kick try. Given the crack in the door, Cincinnati busted through with a 63-second scoring drive and winning extra point.
"I told [Janocko] after the game that it wasn't one play," Wannstedt said. "Everybody in that room could have done something during the course of the game to make it different. He's been outstanding for us for two years."
Many parts of the game will be debated around Pittsburgh for a long time to come, like why the team kept kicking to Mardy Gilyard, why the offense went away from the running game in the third quarter and why some costly personal fouls were committed (and called). Pitt fans will wonder when this program will ever win a championship under Wannstedt.
That talk shouldn't overshadow the incredible performance by freshman running back Dion Lewis. He broke a school record with 47 carries, gaining 194 yards and three touchdowns.
"Dion is the best," Wannstedt said. "It's amazing for a freshman, 12 weeks into the season, to show up like he did today and perform at that level."
Unfortunately for the Panthers, they came up just short of matching Cincinnati's level. And a long fall down from what they aspired was the end result.