UNC’s bowl opponent in a slump
By Alan Robinson
PITTSBURGH ó They could be heading to the Sugar Bowl for the first time in 28 years. Instead, the Pitt Panthers traveled to Charlotte for a day-after-Christmas game they hope doesn’t get lost amid the post-holiday shuffle and more important bowls.
Last-minute losses to rival West Virginia and Big East champion Cincinnati pushed Pitt (9-3) out of the Top 10, cost it the Big East title and raised questions whether the Panthers could be setting themselves up for another bad bowl like last season’s.
Pitt might not have played a worse bowl game in its history than its 3-0 loss to Oregon State in the Sun Bowl a year ago, and it certainly is on coach Dave Wannstedt’s mind as he prepares his team for Saturday’s Meineke Bowl against North Carolina (8-4).
Stamina and conditioning don’t disappear in three weeks’ time, but motivation and drive occasionally do.
The No. 16 Panthers (9-3) have rarely had successive losses as disappointing as those in their final two regular season games, so rebuilding his team’s confidence and positive state of mind might be Wannstedt’s biggest challenge.
It’s showing, too.
Wannstedt ran three rugged practices after finals ended last week, with far more contact than usual during the season. There also are signs reading “Let’s Be Different, End With 10” throughout the Panthers’ practice complex.
Last season, Pitt had a chance to reach the 10-win mark for the first time since 1981, only to fall flat in the Sun Bowl. Wannstedt doesn’t want a repeat of that performance in Charlotte, saying his Panthers have some “unfinished business.”
“The seniors have done so much to take this program back to national prominence, and we’ve got to finish this thing out,” Wannstedt said. “We had two tough losses at the end, and we’ve got to finish on a positive note.”
Wannstedt’s selling points to his players: Winning the bowl game will make the season far more satisfying than losing the final three games would.
“The best thing about this is that we’ve got another game to play,” Wannstedt said. “We’ve got another opportunity to go out and make a disappointment a positive. Our kids are talking about it, and as they start watching the tape it’s starting to build. … (The Tar Heels) are a talented group. I can sense that our guys are getting into the challenges of who’s playing against who.”
Last year was Pitt’s first bowl game in four years and its coach’s first, and it showed. That’s one reason Wannstedt is taking more of a hardline approach this season, saying the team will enjoy the bowl trappings in Charlotte but will be more concerned with preparing well.
The Panthers might have to be their own biggest supporters on this trip, too. Pitt offered free tickets to students who want to attend, but it’s unlikely many fans will make the trip given the bowl is so close to Christmas and the two season-ending losses, 19-16 to West Virginia on Nov. 27 and 45-44 to Cincinnati on Dec. 5.
“After going to the bowl game last year and the entire bowl game experience, I think it’s now a ‘been there, done that’ for most of these guys,” Wannstedt said. “I’m optimistic that we’ll be able to be a little more efficient from a football standpoint. I know that I will because last year was my first year going through it.”