by Mike Cranston
Associated Press Writer
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP)—Pittsburgh hasn’t won this many games since Dan Marino was the quarterback. The only player in school history to rush for more yards in a season than freshman sensation Dion Lewis is somebody named Tony Dorsett.
Thanks to a late-game rally in front of a hostile crowd, the Panthers made a strong case they’ve returned to prominence.
|BIG WIN FOR PROGRAM—Dion Lewis (28) and Jason Pinkston (77) celebrate after Pitt’s 19-17 win over North Carolina in the Meineke Bowl in Charlotte, N.C.
Lewis rushed for 159 yards and a touchdown to move up in the record book and Dan Hutchins kicked a 33-yard field goal with 52 seconds left, giving 17th-ranked Pitt a 19-17 victory over North Carolina in the Meineke Bowl.
Winning 10 games for the first time since the Marino era in 1981, Pitt (10-3) overcame a disappointing loss to Cincinnati three weeks ago that cost it a spot in a BCS bowl.
“It’s back,” Lewis said of Pitt football, moments after he was voted bowl MVP. “We’re not satisfied with just 10 wins. We want to get more next year.”
The last win in 2009 required a remarkable 17-play drive that lasted nearly nine minutes, included a key fourth-down conversion, a costly penalty against North Carolina and 13 runs by the dynamic Lewis.
Eclipsing Dorsett’s freshman rushing record of 1,686 yards in the first quarter, Lewis also moved past Craig Heyward into second on the school’s single-season list with 1,799 yards. Dorsett rushed for 2,150 yards in 1976 when he won the Heisman Trophy and Pitt won its last national title.
“It’s tough to describe what Dion has accomplished,” coach Dave Wannstedt said. “He’s special.”
T.J. Yates threw two touchdown passes to Greg Little, but his incomplete pass on fourth-and-10 from his own 49 with six seconds left sent the Tar Heels (8-5) to their second straight loss.
Yates was 19 of 32 for 183 yards and an interception while Little caught seven passes for 87 yards and Ryan Houston rushed for 83 yards.
But North Carolina’s defense, which came in sixth in the nation overall and ninth against the run, struggled to contain the shifty Lewis and continued a trend of struggling to close out games over the past two seasons under coach Butch Davis.
“I don’t think we played as smart as we needed to,” Davis said.
The matchup of old coaching buddies went to Wannstedt.
Davis and Wannstedt worked on Jimmy Johnson’s staffs at Oklahoma State, Miami and the Dallas Cowboys, winning a national title and Super Bowl together. Their careers then included NFL head coaching jobs before they returned to college.
Lewis broke Dorsett’s 36-year-old freshman mark on a 24-yard run late in the first quarter that ended with him fumbling the ball through the end zone for a touchback when E.J. Wilson knocked the ball free. The speedy Lewis made up for it an 11-yard touchdown run that put Pitt ahead 10-7 early in the second quarter.
The 5-8 Lewis had eclipsed 100 yards by halftime, his 10th 100-yard game of the season and his eighth straight. Not bad for a lightly recruited player deemed too small by most of the major schools.
Davis compared him to Clinton Portis, and Lewis was already fielding 2010 Heisman Trophy questions after the game.
“That’s too much,” Lewis said. “I don’t think I’m ready for that right now.”