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It’s been a while, but Pitt football finally delivers

NCAA Football: ACC Championship-Pittsburgh vs Wake Forest Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Before I arrived on campus way back in 1996, my interest in Pitt athletics was fairly limited. The lone Pitt influence I had in central Pennsylvania, in fact, was a neighbor that attended football games on occasion and would happily give me his game programs when he returned. But like most students, that changed the minute I got on campus.

I quickly went from not much of a fan to heading to every game. Most students were content with attending games but I became a bit of a diehard, reading up on the team, attending games in crap weather, and following to such a degree that I started this dumb blog years after graduation. Even during the horrendous 2-9 season of 1998, I paid attention as if my life depended on the result. Those of you that were watching through the 1990s know of the misery I speak.

Things got better. Walt Harris ultimately turned things around, winning 25 games in his last three seasons. Things culminated with a Big East title and subsequent appearance in the Fiesta Bowl in 2004 before he got run out of town after failing at Stanford. The Panthers, of course, were trounced by undefeated Utah and, well, yeah.

Now, I should stop there, but I can’t. It’s important to the overall narrative of this story, I think.

Pitt got to that game fair and square but those that were around then know that they limped to get there. They reached the BCS bowl with some talent but that wasn’t a great team. They lost to UConn and Syracuse that season, needed overtime to beat Furman, lost to a sub .500 Nebraska squad, and had narrow wins against Temple and Boston College. They won the Big East mostly because the rest of the conference was so mediocre and through a tiebreaker scenario. Highlights included narrow wins over Notre Dame and West Virginia but, safe to say, Pitt was not a particularly strong conference champion. The conference was in a major state of change after Miami and Virginia Tech, two of its best teams, bolted for the ACC. This is a pretty good, fairly brief rundown of the Big East chaos that year, if you’ve got the time.

The Panthers were such a weak BCS team that Utah fans were moaning about the fact that they didn’t get a better opponent even before the 35-7 postseason beatdown. Even as Pitt reached new heights, that season still showed just how far the program had to go to get to the point it is today.

Still, the program continued to make some waves under Dave Wannstedt. Wannstedt brought a ton of talent to the university and, after a setback in his first few years, the Panthers ultimately won ten games in 2009, with a bowl game victory.

But after that, things get fuzzy in a hurry. There was the Todd Graham-Michael Haywood fiasco before a bit of stability settled in under Paul Chryst. But the Panthers never improved from the Harris/Wannstedt years.

Enter Pat Narduzzi. Narduzzi quickly earned the respect of fans with eight-win seasons in 2015 and 2016, along with some high-profile wins over Penn State and Clemson. But it wasn’t long before Pitt began looking like the Pitt of old. The team went 5-7 the next year, 7-7 in 2018, and after going 8-5 in 2019, fell back to 6-5 last year. It was all very much Pitt-like. Narduzzi was not doing little enough to be fired but the program was very much stuck in the mud.

An early season loss to Western Michigan this year seemed to solidify that trend was continuing. And while I was never a fan of letting Narduzzi go before, after that game, even I wondered about the logic for retaining him without a major turnaround.

Of course, that’s exactly what happened.

I won’t recap the entire season. That’s not necessary and I’ve already babbled on long enough. Plus, all of you were watching, just like I was. And in 25 years of closely watching Pitt football, this is the first time in a long time where I can say that Pitt finally delivered.

Sure, Pitt has had some really fulfilling individual games in the past — even in recent years. The program has given us a ton of ‘moments.’ And sure, the Panthers had some exciting teams to watch. The 8-5 Pitt team in 2016 with a bear of a schedule comes to mind. We’ve also seen some of the nation’s best individual performers in Larry Fitzgerald, Lesean McCoy, and Aaron Donald, among others. Despite all of that, we never really had the fully satisfying season.

2009 could have been that year before the disastrous one-point loss against Cincinnati in the regular season finale. Pitt teased greatness in 2016 but still only wound up 8-5. The Panthers reached the ACC championship in 2018 but lost a disappointing game to Miami the week before, was pounded by Clemson in the title game, and then lost to an underwhelming Stanford team to finish 7-7. These were wholly unsatisfying seasons that mostly resulted in what-ifing things to death.

Time after time, whenever Pitt has had the chance to really make some noise, they have generally fallen flat on their collective face.

But this year? We’ve not seen anything like this year in a very long time.

You don’t need me to tell you this but Pitt performed every time they had to this season. The Panthers started with an early test at Tennessee and when it looked like the wheels were coming off, the team responded for a big road win. They won their ACC opener against Georgia Tech on the road by 31 points. They went to Virginia Tech in a tough place to play and won by three touchdowns. They beat Clemson at home. They pulled out a gritty win against North Carolina. And with it all on the line, they beat a ranked Wake Forest team by 24 in the ACC championship. It’s worth pointing out that, along the way, Pitt bested at least a few teams that rolled out likely NFL quarterbacks.

Everywhere you looked, Pitt was just coming up big in big spots and I’ve never seen that before from this program. Every time the pressure was on, they delivered — sometimes, like the ACC title game, in spectacular fashion.

The Panthers weren’t perfect. We all know that. They lost the head-scratcher against Western Michigan and were then beaten by a Miami team that was great down the stretch. But neither of those games kept Pitt from winning the ACC title. And at the end of the day, there is not a person alive that would have refused an 11-win season resulting in an ACC championship before the season began. Heck, people would have gladly taken a 7-5 season if an ACC title accompanied it.

Is it frustrating given that this year, Pitt legitimately could have run the table? Not for me.

Don’t get me wrong. Pitt taking care of business against Western Michigan and finding a way to turn that narrow loss to Miami into a win would have been wonderful. Seeing Pitt in the College Football Playoff — let’s be real. Sure, we’d all love that. And if there was a year that could have happened with only a four-team playoff, this was probably the year to do it with Cincinnati sneaking in.

But there’s no way I’m complaining even a little. Pitt had their hands full against Tennessee and trailed early on. North Carolina took them to overtime and Pitt really benefited from a downpour that began when the Tar Heels went on offense, limiting them severely. The Panthers also didn’t have any ranked wins until topping Wake Forest in the title game (Clemson, now ranked, was not at the time). I love this team but I’m not sure they’re elite and necessarily deserved to go undefeated. If they replayed the season, 11-2 is quite possibly, the limit for this team, and I can accept that. Even if they could have done more, you’ll excuse me for letting them off the hook. This was fine.

And while I’d love to see the Panthers pull out a win against Michigan State (a team they are very much capable of beating), a loss in that game won’t dampen my mood. This was one heck of a season, win or lose that game. A win would merely be icing on the top.

This is the type of year Pitt fans have been clamoring for ever since the program started to fall off in the 1980s. And if I’m being honest, it still all seems a bit surreal to me. 11-2 season, Heisman candidate quarterback, ACC championship, major bowl game — come on. No one saw this coming.

For once, I’m fully content with what the football team accomplished. Now, let’s go out and beat Michigan State, anyway.

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