Tony Pike's 29-yard touchdown pass to Armon Binns with 33 seconds left finished No. 5 Cincinnati's comeback from a 21-point deficit, and the Bearcats beat No. 14 Pittsburgh 45-44 on Saturday to secure a BCS berth and their second straight Big East title.
The first de facto Big East championship game since the conference began playing football in 1991 was a high-scoring classic. Freshman Dion Lewis' three touchdowns and 194 yards rushing on 47 carries in a Tony Dorsett-like performance carried Pitt (9-3, 5-2) to leads of 31-10, 38-24 and 44-38, only to have the Mardy Gilyard-led Bearcats (12-0, 7-0) rally each time.
Gilyard gave the Bearcats a much-needed jolt with a 99-yard kickoff return only 70 seconds before halftime after Pitt had opened its 21-point lead, and he made it 31-24 in the third quarter with a 68-yard scoring catch.
Gilyard's 49-yard kickoff return also led to Pike's 8-yard scoring pass to D.J. Woods that cut Pitt's lead to 38-30 early in the fourth quarter.
Cincinnati heads off to a BCS bowl for the second season in a row with its first 12-0 record in school history, while Pitt's second consecutive loss likely dooms the Panthers to a minor bowl only two weeks after the Panthers were 9-1 and ranked in the top 10.
Lewis, breaking Craig "Ironhead" Heyward's 1987 school record of 42 carries in a game and inching close to Dorsett's school rushing record for a freshman, put Pitt ahead 44-38 with 1:36 remaining on a 5-yard run. But holder Andrew Janocko mishandled a perfect snap from center and Pitt never got off the extra point, a costly mistake.
Cincinnati, which also failed to convert an extra point but made up for it with a 2-pointer, needed only four plays to drive for its only lead of the game. Pike, who completed 8 of his first 33 passes, was 4 of 4 on the 61-yard march. He finished 22 of 44 for 302 yards, despite throwing three interceptions.
Lewis sliced through Cincinnati's defense with speed and power, running three times for 17 yards ahead of his 15-yard scoring run that restored Pitt's two-touchdown lead with 12:26 remaining. Woods' score got the Bearcats close again, and they tied it at 38 with 5:46 left on Isaiah Pead's 1-yard run and Pike's conversion pass to _ who else? _ Gilyard.
He made five catches for 118 yards and also had 256 yards on seven kickoff returns.
Pitt, which lost 19-16 to rival West Virginia last week, had everything going in the first half _ the running game, the occasional deep pass and, for a change, special teams. Nate Nix's blocked punt led to Bill Stull's 3-yard TD run on a bootleg.
It was Pitt's biggest regular season game since the then-No. 1 Panthers, led by Dan Marino, took a 14-0 lead before losing to Penn State 48-14 in 1981, costing them a chance to play for the national title. Pitt beat Georgia Tech in the Sugar Bowl that season, and has played in only one major bowl since.
All of Lewis' early runs _ he carried on 11 of Pitt's first 12 plays _ eventually set up the play-action pass and a pair of Stull touchdown passes to Jonathan Baldwin.
The 6-foot-5 Baldwin barely got his left leg down in the end zone before going out of bounds on his 28-yarder, and he got loose downfield on a 40-yarder on a flea flicker as Lewis took a handoff only to pitch the ball back to Stull, putting Pitt up 21-10.
Lewis, whose 1,640 yards is 46 shy of Dorsett's freshman season total in 1973, had 116 yards on 29 carries and three catches by halftime. By running so much, Pitt exploited the Bearcats' biggest weakness _ they gave up 572 yards rushing in their previous three games _ and kept the ball out of their big-play offense for long stretches.
The Panthers couldn't keep doing it in the second half, when they were outscored 28-13.
Pitt knew better than to get into a high-scoring game with a Cincinnati offense that averages nearly 473 yards and 39 points _ at least, until Gilyard got the Bearcats back into it.
His kickoff return was the fourth such touchdown of his career, and his third kick return score of the season. Instead of being down three touchdowns at the half, Cincinnati got it down to a more manageable two-TD deficit.
Gilyard later got open between two defenders to turn Pike's floater of a pass into a 68-yard touchdown on a second-and-14 play. Going into the series, Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly was seen several times in animated conversations with Pike. Backup Zach Collaros warmed up briefly along the sideline, suggesting the Bearcats were considering a change.
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