After Pitt’s win over then number-two ranked and eventual national champion Clemson in 2016 and what turned to be a top-10 Penn State team earlier that same season there was discussion of what impact those victories would have for Pitt football. It certainly didn’t result in an uptick in attendance at Heinz Field the following week against Duke. Despite those impressive wins, the season resulted in a Pinstripe Bowl appearance for Pitt and a loss to Northwestern.
Which led me to wonder, over the past 50 years, what games, good or bad, were the most significant for Pitt football?
- January 1, 1977 – Unquestionably, the game that had the greatest meaning of the last 50 years and beyond for Pitt is the 1977 Sugar Bowl victory over Georgia 27-3. It was the only game for the Panthers where the outcome of the national championship was at stake and Coach Johnny Majors’ Panthers did not disappoint, easily beating the Bulldogs in New Orleans. It was Pitt’s first national championship since 1937 and it was also the end of the Johnny Majors era at Pitt but the head coaching position would be capably filled by Jackie Sherrill.
- November 26, 1976 – With an undefeated season on the line and in control of their own destiny for a national championship should Pitt be victorious, Coach Majors’ halftime adjustment of moving Tony Dorsett to the fullback position in the backfield broke open a close game and Pitt defeated their arch-rival Penn State 24-7 in front of a nationwide television audience at Three Rivers Stadium. The victory was all the sweeter as it was the first win over Penn State since 1965 as Pitt was 0-10 versus Penn State Coach Joe Paterno to that point.
- November 28, 1981 – This may well have been the national title that got away. Undefeated and ranked #1 and leading 14-0 in the first quarter at home in the regular season finale at Pitt Stadium and driving towards yet another touchdown, quarterback Dan Marino’s pass was intercepted in the end zone and Penn State went on to score 48 unanswered points. The perfect season was ruined for the Panthers and the 48-14 score of the game would forever become all too familiar to Pitt fans.
- September 11, 1976 – The Panthers showed they were legitimate national title contenders by going into South Bend, Indiana, and defeating 11th-ranked Notre Dame 31-10. After Dorsett gained 303 yards against Notre Dame the year before, Notre Dame had the grass grow high enough to deeply nestle a golf ball in Rockne Stadium in an attempt to slow down Dorsett. There was no slowing down Dorsett as on his first carry he ran for 61 yards and would gain 181 yards rushing on the afternoon.
- October 11, 1980 – On the surface this looks like merely an early season loss, but this 36-22 loss at Florida State turned out to be Pitt’s only loss on the season for a very strong 1980 Pitt team. This loss could well have cost Pitt a national championship as Pitt would surrender only 73 points in their remaining seven games.
- January 1, 2005 – This 35-7 Fiesta Bowl loss to Utah turned out to be Pitt’s last major bowl game and it came 32 years after their previous major bowl game, that being a Cotton Bowl loss to SMU. Loyal Pitt football fans waited so long for Pitt to be in a major bowl game and were left disappointed in the desert.
- December 5, 2009 – This game had the highest of highs and the lowest of lows as it turned out to be the most disappointing game in Pitt’s time at Heinz Field and certainly in the last 25 years. Pitt led 31-10 with less than two minutes left to go before halftime until Cincinnati’s Marty Gilyard returned a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown and shifted the game’s momentum to the Bearcats. Cincinnati roared back for a 45-44 comeback victory to dash Pitt’s Big East conference title hopes and the Bearcats went on to the Sugar Bowl instead of Pitt to face Florida.
- September 22, 1979 – When it came to the polls and having a shot at a national championship, the adage was If you’re going to lose, lose early. That way you can climb back up the polls as other teams lose throughout the season. Well, evidently that didn’t play out for Pitt in 1979 despite a second-week loss to North Carolina and Pitt not losing again for the rest of the season. Pitt came into the game ranked 13th and this second-week-of-the-season loss sent Pitt spiraling out of the top 20 and the Panthers never could climb back into national title contention despite winning all their remaining 10 games.
- January 1, 1982 – This game makes the list as a reminder that one should never take something like winning a major bowl game for granted and it was also the end of the Jackie Sherrill era at Pitt, but what an ending it was. This was Pitt’s last major bowl victory, more than 35 years ago, a come-from-behind thriller as Pitt beat #2-ranked Georgia 24-20 on a Dan Marino 33-yard touchdown pass to John Brown with less than a minute remaining in the game.
- December 1, 2007 – This one makes the list not so much as to how it impacted Pitt, but how much meaning and satisfaction it provides Pitt fans every time they think about this edition of the Backyard Brawl. Pitt dashed their rival West Virginia’s hopes at a national championship in the most memorable game in the Backyard Brawl’s history. The #2-ranked Mountaineers with a high-powered offense were four-touchdown favorites at home and needing only to beat a 4-7 Pitt team to have a spot in the national championship game. Pitt’s defense would have none of it shutting down the Mountaineers and the 13-9 score of the game is well-known to every Panther and Mountaineer fan.
Photo courtesy of the University of Pittsburgh
John Baranowski is a sports historian and contributor to newspapers, sports publications and sports websites. This and other articles written by him can be found on his blog: https://johnbaranowski.wordpress.com/.