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Pitt makes return to Sun Bowl

PITTSBURGH — The Pitt Panthers are hoping the Sun Bowl will be as kind to them this season as it was in the past.

In 1975, they beat Kansas 33-19 in El Paso, the lead-in to their national championship-winning season and Tony Dorsett's Heisman Trophy a year later.

In 1989, the No. 23 Panthers ushered in the Paul Hackett era by upsetting No. 16 Texas A&M 31-28 in the Sun Bowl. Unfortunately for Hackett, who took over after coach Mike Gottfried was shoved out before the season ended, it was the highlight of a short and not-successful three-plus seasons on the job.

This time, the No. 18 Panthers (9-3) take on No. 24 Oregon State (8-4) on Dec. 31 in the first Sun Bowl to pair AP-ranked teams since, surprise, that 1989 Pitt-Texas A&M matchup. If the Panthers have any advantage going into this game, it's that they look to be peaking again as the season ends.

Last year, they salvaged a major disappointment of a season in which they lost seven of their first 11 by upsetting then-No. 2 West Virginia 13-9.

This time, they're coming off not only a last-minute 19-15 victory over West Virginia on Nov. 28, but also a 34-10 road rout of bowl-bound Connecticut on Saturday. The Panthers have won four of five, losing only to No. 12 Cincinnati three weeks ago.

"We're upset that we didn't win the Big East and get the Orange Bowl, but we wanted to go to the best bowl possible after that," punter Conor Lee said. "For our conference, that's the Sun Bowl. So we accomplished that."

A few weeks ago, it appeared another Pennsylvania team would play the Beavers in a bowl game. However, Oregon State lost to Oregon 65-38 on Nov. 29 to miss out on playing Penn State in the Rose Bowl.

This is will be the Beavers' second Sun Bowl appearance in three years and follows up on their 39-38 victory over Missouri in 2006.

What Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt welcomes is the extra three weeks of practice his mostly young team will get. He would have liked that a year ago after the West Virginia game, but all that followed that performance were the informal player workouts that began a month later.

"What's encouraging is that we've got three seniors on offense and three on defense, so we're not a senior team by any means," Wannstedt said. "So I think we're doing it the right way. We're filtering in the (freshman receiver) Jonathan Baldwins and some of the other players with the (senior linebacker) Scott McKillops and the veterans."

Playing a game during the first week of December, when most teams have finished their regular seasons, delayed Pitt's recruiting. But Wannstedt and his staff will take advantage of final exams this week to get on the road, and they're hoping that the school's first bowl appearance in four years will help.

"We've got some work to make up, but we'll make a real strong push over the next two weeks with our recruiting," Wannstedt said. "We've got a nice mix (of players), but we need to continue to recruit well. To win games like we have down the stretch, you need to have ability, but you have to have character, too. And the high-character kids that we're recruiting is starting to show."