Pittsburgh's bowl drought will continue for a third season, but the Panthers go into the offseason with the next best thing.
The Panthers ended the national title hopes of archrival West Virginia with an unlikely 13-9 over the Mountaineers in Morgantown. Though Pittsburgh finished the season 5-7, its worst record in three seasons under Dave Wannstedt, the Panthers enter the offseason with renewed optimism for 2008.
West Virginia's Pat White and Steve Slaton weren't the most effective runners on the field Saturday. That would be Pitt freshman LeSean McCoy, who ran 38 times for 148 yards.
Plus, West Virginia's defense was upstaged by Pittsburgh's. WVU managed only 183 yards of offense and its lowest point total since the Gator Bowl after the 2003 season.
Pittsburgh took two weekly awards from Rivals.com: McCoy was named National Freshman of the Week, and Panthers defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads was named Coordinator of the Week.
"It doesn't replace a bowl game," Rhoads said. "But it does springboard us into recruiting, our offseason training and conditioning and spring ball. It immediately heightens the hopes for a more successful 2008 and raises expectations, which is just fine."
From the outside looking in, it couldn't have been a more unlikely result for the defense. In the past two "Backyard Brawls,' WVU had scored 45 and 42 points on the Panthers. And Pitt struggled early in the season on defense, particularly in a 48-45 double- overtime loss to Navy when the Midshipmen ran for 331 yards.
The Panthers entered Saturday's game with few giving them a chance to stop West Virginia on the way to the national championship game. Pitt was a four-touchdown underdog.
"They should have been a 28-point favorite in that game," Rhoads said. "We were 4-7 and they were 10-1. They were in the top three in the country in offense and defense. On paper, the game was a mismatch."
Beyond the numbers, Pittsburgh slowly began to recover from early setbacks.
Led by the nation's leading tackler, Scott McKillop, the Panthers gradually improved since the Navy game. The end result was a stifling of WVU's offense.
White missed half of the game with a thumb injury, but in his absence, neither Slaton (nine carries, 11 yards) nor Noel Devine (seven carries, 11 yards) could kick-start the rushing attack.
Part of the key was watching film of Slaton's and White's success against Pitt in the past two seasons.
"The kids might have been as close to flawless in a football as you can be," Rhoads said. "We had people in the right location to tackle him (Slaton). Plays that we had against him in the past, there was too much space involved. And (this season) we were able to keep their guys inside and not get on the perimeter."
OTHER NOMINEES FOR COORDINATOR OF THE WEEK:
Bud Foster, Virginia Tech
The second-half magic was on the Hokies' side this time against Boston College. The Eagles mustered only four second-half first downs and Matt Ryan was held without a touchdown pass for the first time all season in the Hokies' 30-16 win in the ACC title game.
Brent Venables, Oklahoma
The Sooners did what no one else could do this season: They held Missouri to fewer than 30 points. Mizzou QB Chase Daniel passed for a season-low 219 yards in a 38-17 Sooners win in the Big 12 Championship Game.
Scott Shafer, Stanford
Stanford defeated Cal for the first time since 2001. The Cardinal allowed 360 yards, but they held Cal to one touchdown and came away with two interceptions in a 20-13 win.
Gary Nord, Florida Atlantic
The Owls put up 423 yards of offense at Troy, the most allowed by the Trojans in a Sun Belt game this year. FAU defeated Troy 38-32 to clinch the New Orleans Bowl bid. Troy had allowed only two other Sun Belt teams to score in double digits this season.
Pittsburgh got the bulk of its offense against West Virginia from McCoy, who set a Big East single-season freshman record with 1,328 rushing yards this season.
Like Pitt's defense, McCoy entered the game on something of a cold streak, failing to rush for 100 yards in the previous two games. But he was the focal point of Pitt's offense against the Mountaineers, running for 148 yards in his seventh triple-digit game of the season.
QB Sam Bradford, Oklahoma
Bradford ended the season as the nation's most efficient passer by going 18-of-26 for 209 yards and two touchdowns in a 38-17 win over Missouri in the Big 12 title game.
SS Eric Berry, Tennessee
Berry recorded his fifth interception of the season to go with a fumble recovery and seven tackles in a 21-14 loss to LSU in the SEC Championship Game.
RB Joe McKnight, USC
McKnight helped USC get revenge on UCLA by rushing for 89 yards and a touchdown in a 24-7 win over the Bruins.
RB Harvey Unga, BYU
Though BYU already had clinched the Mountain West title, Unga continued to set school freshman records with 161 rushing yards and three touchdowns in a 48-27 win over San Diego State.
Brennan and Hawaii clinched a spot in the Sugar Bowl thanks to a furious comeback against Washington.
The Huskies took a 21-0 lead in the first quarter, but Brennan took over, completing 42-of-50 passes for 442 yards and five touchdowns.
Two fourth-quarter touchdown passes, including one with 44 seconds left, gave Hawaii the 35-28 win and clinched a 12-0 regular season.
TB Kevin Smith, UCF
Barry Sanders' single-season Division I-A rushing record is within reach for Smith, who ran for 284 yards and four touchdowns in a 44-25 win over Tulsa in the Conference USA championship game. With the Liberty Bowl against Mississippi State remaining, Smith is 181 yards away from breaking Sanders' single-season record of 2,628.
QB Dan LeFevour, Central Michigan
LeFevour clinched a second consecutive MAC title for the Chippewas by passing for 185 yards, running for 170 and accounting for three touchdowns in a 35-10 win over Miami (Ohio) in the conference title game.
LB Spencer Larsen, Arizona
He came up with a huge effort in a 20-17 loss to Arizona State. He finished with 15 tackles, two sacks, three tackles for loss and a fumble recovery.
LB Derrick Doggett, Oregon State
Doggett helped prolong Oregon's misery to end the season by amassing 18 tackles and returning an interception 28 yards for a touchdown in a 38-31 double-overtime victory over the Ducks.