PITTSBURGH -- No. 5 Cincinnati trailed Pittsburgh by 21 points late in the first half, a perfect season and BCS bowl berth in peril. Teammate after teammate came up to wide receiver Mardy Gilyard asking for a big play.
Gilyard listened to every plea, silently whispered a short prayer, then relied on his speed and can't-tackle-me attitude to give the Bearcats numerous momentum-swinging plays in a game they led only once -- at the end.
Tony Pike's 29-yard touchdown pass to Armon Binns with 33 seconds left finished the comeback from a three-touchdown deficit, and the Bearcats stunned Pittsburgh (No. 15 BCS, No. 14 AP) 45-44 on Saturday to secure 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 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 -- immediately after coach Brian Kelly and a half-dozen teammates pleaded for a game-changing play -- 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. Gilyard has four kickoff return touchdowns in his career and three kick return scores this season.
"Mardy Gilyard was absolutely brilliant," Kelly said. "The kickoff return was the spark that got us back into the game."
Gilyard didn't do it all by himself. Pike shook off a rough opening three quarters to complete his final 11 passes for 128 yards and two touchdowns. Binns made five catches for 104 yards in an offense that came in averaging 473 yards and 39 points.
"We were going through the motions," Pike said of falling behind 31-10 in the second quarter. "We were trying to make too many big plays. But then Mardy got us going, just like he has so many times."
Cincinnati heads off to the BCS for the second season in a row with its first 12-0 record, while Pitt's second consecutive loss dooms the Panthers to a minor bowl only two weeks after the Panthers were 9-1 and ranked in the top 10.
Kelly, wearing a red, white and blue Big East championship cap, refused to discuss rumors that Notre Dame is interested in him.
"I'm not going to talk about any job situations," he said. "Let's talk about back-to-back championships and these kids."
Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt called it "a tough, heartbreaking loss, to say the least," and his players' faces said it was even worse than that.
Linebacker Adam Gunn became upset with questions about how Cincinnati drove 61 yards in only 63 seconds for the decisive score. Lewis didn't talk to reporters despite playing one of the best games by any running back in school history.
"I told my teammates that we had a terrific ride," defensive end Mick Williams said. "It's a tough way to end, and I really don't know how to describe it."
Lewis, breaking Craig "Ironhead" Heyward's 1987 school record of 42 carries in a game, 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.
Lewis, whose 1,640 yards are 46 shy of Dorsett's freshman season total of 1,686 yards in 1973, had 116 yards on 29 carries and three catches by halftime.
Cincinnati also failed to convert an extra point but made up for it with a 2-pointer. Pike was held to 8 completions in his first 22 attempts, but went 4 of 4 on the final drive and finished 22 of 44 for 302 yards despite throwing three interceptions.
"He had to fight through it," said Kelly, who briefly warmed up backup Zach Collaros early in the third quarter. "He made some mistakes he normally doesn't make, but he was the guy."
Before that, 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 at 38-24 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 Gilyard.
Gilyard made five catches for 118 yards and also had 256 yards on seven kickoff returns.
"I don't know what their scheme was, but they kept kicking it to me," said Gilyard, who has 2,442 all-purpose yards this season, an average of 203 per game.
Pitt, which lost 19-16 to rival West Virginia on Nov. 27 to fall out of the top 10, 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 that made it 31-10 with 1:26 left before halftime.
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.