By JOHN P. WISE
One Great Season
PITTSBURGH -- I lost a job in July and had no idea what I was going to do next. Then I revived a project I'd thought about 15 years ago, hit the road in late August, and 14 Saturdays later, spent a snowy afternoon in Pittsburgh watching through a camera's viewfinder on the sideline as my alma mater finished off its most successful season in school history.
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And the Cincinnati Bearcats did it by beating Big East-rival Pittsburgh in the most exciting college football game of the season at frigid Heinz Field.
The Panthers couldn't hold on to a 31-10 second-quarter lead, and allowed three touchdowns in the final 11 minutes as the Bearcats claimed a thrilling 45-44 victory.
Mardy Gilyard wasn't the X factor for the visitors. He was the A-Z factor, repeatedly breathing life into an unusually tame Cincinnati attack. After Pittsburgh built that 21-point cushion late in the first half, Gilyard returned a kickoff down the left sideline and into the end zone right in front of 1,000 or so screaming red sweaters who made the drive from Cincinnati.
The play pulled the Bearcats to 31-17 just before the break.
The second half featured several momentum swings, big plays, a few key mistakes and even a couple of questionable calls by officials.
Senior quarterback Tony Pike connected with Gilyard on a 68-yard touchdown for the only points of the third quarter.
Pitt's talented freshman Dion Lewis scored the first of his two fourth-quarter touchdowns -- he also had one in the opening period -- to give the home team a 38-24 advantage, but Pike and D.J. Woods teamed up on an 8-yard scoring strike just 77 seconds later. Jake Rogers's point-after attempt hit the upright, leaving Cincinnati with an 8-point deficit.
More than five minutes passed before Isaiah Pead bulled his way to a 1-yard touchdown, and Gilyard's leaping grab of a Pike pass for the two-point conversion made the score 38-38.
Then the fun started.
Pitt took more than four minutes on a drive that ended with Lewis' 5-yard touchdown run at the 1:36 mark. Panthers holder Andrew Janocko couldn't corral the snap, however, so Pitt's lead was 44-38.
You had the feeling that it wasn't just those in the red sweaters behind the far end zone who knew that PAT failure was going to be relevant a short time later.
Pike, who completed his final 11 passes, got UC into what anyone else would call its two-minute offense. For the Bearcats, it's called Saturday.
UC marched easily down the field, and tied the game when Pike found a diving Armon Binns a half step beyond his man. The 29-yard touchdown pass tied the game at 44 with 33 seconds left. Rogers's PAT was good this time, and the celebration was on.
Cincinnati players stormed the field, donning brand new red, white and blue caps, the first symbols of a second straight Big East championship.
Pike, Gilyard and all their sweaty, grass-stained friends exchanged hugs, high-fives and hell-yeahs; a few even ran around with tears streaming down their faces.
The two stars were among the last Bearcats to leave the field and join the locker-room party. Pike signed autographs, shook hands with fans and even took some weak trash talk from bitter Pitt students who hung around near the UC tunnel, at least 20 minutes after the game had ended.
Meanwhile, Gilyard enjoyed a few minutes in front of the cameras, covering such topics as his support for Nebraska, Cincinnati-style chili and the future of Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly. You can watch that below, and come on back for more celebration video Sunday morning.