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Pittsburgh Edged Out By No. 23 Cincinnati, 26-23

Pittsburgh quarterback Tino Sunseri (12) evades Cincinnati defensive lineman John Hughes.

Pittsburgh quarterback Tino Sunseri (12) evades Cincinnati defensive lineman John Hughes.

Nov. 5, 2011

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PITTSBURGH (AP) - Pittsburgh's search for consistency continues.

Another winnable game. Another second-half meltdown. Another puzzling loss in a season that is quickly filling with them.

The Panthers fell to No. 23 Cincinnati 26-23 on Saturday night, a defeat that looked awfully familiar to first-year coach Todd Graham.

"We made way too many mental errors," Graham said.

The most painful ones popping up after the Panthers took a 10-point lead in the third quarter. Pittsburgh let the Bearcats back in the game with a pair of turnovers that paved the way to Cincinnati's sixth straight win.

Quarterback Tino Sunseri fumbled to set up a Zach Collaros touchdown run that tied the game at 23 then threw an interception three plays later that the Bearcats (7-1, 3-0 Big East) used to take control of what was supposed to be a wide-open conference race.

"We have to move the ball and be able to make plays and execute and play sound football for 60 minutes," Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri said. "That's what we've been doing for 45 minutes, but we need to do that for 60 minutes."

It hasn't been happening with any sort of regularity for the Panthers (4-5, 2-2). Pitt hasn't won consecutive games since starting the season 2-0 and now needs to win out and get a ton of help to have a shot at the conference title.

"It's a crazy league and it isn't over yet," Graham said. "We've got to regroup."

The Panthers better do it fast. Graham hoped his team was finally building momentum after crushing Connecticut 10 days ago. Instead Pitt continued its one-step-forward, one-step-back routine.

"We have to be able to turn things around and make first downs and move the ball down the field," Sunseri said. "But I wasn't able to do that tonight, and we came up three points short."

Pitt had a pair of chances late.

Rather than attempt a 53-yard field goal the Panthers opted to go for it on fourth-and-6 at the Cincinnati 36 with 3:37 to play. Sunseri threw incomplete to Devin Street when Street failed to turn around and look for the pass in time.

"We had a good play and we thought we could make it," Graham said.

The Panthers had one last chance as Sunseri frantically drove them from the Pitt 11 to the Cincinnati 33 with 14 seconds remaining. Harper, who drilled a 52-yarder through the same goal posts in the first quarter, came on to send the game to overtime. His 50-yarder never had a chance, sailing wide ride. The Bearcats stormed onto the field.

"We played well at times, but all that matters is the outcome of the game and in that regard we didn't get it done," Pitt linebacker Brandon Lindsey said.

The defense did its best to hold the Big East's highest-scoring offense in check. Collaros threw for 214 yards and ran for two touchdowns but also threw two interceptions. Isaiah Pead rushed for 118 yards and Tony Miliano kicked four field goals for Cincinnati.

The Bearcats appeared to be in serious trouble after the Panthers took a 23-13 lead midway early in the third quarter on Tino Sunseri's 4-yard toss to tight end Hubie Graham.

Yet Cincinnati rallied doing what it's done all season: Forcing opponents into careless turnovers and turning them into points.

Pitt led by a touchdown late in the third quarter when Sunseri appeared to scramble for a first down. The ball popped out, however, and the Bearcats recovered at the Pitt 27. Cincinnati needed just three plays to tie it at 23, with Collaros plunging over from 3 yards out for his second touchdown of the game.

It took the Bearcats all of three plays to get it back again. Sunseri tried to throw the ball in double coverage and instead it wound up deflecting into the hands of Camerron Cheatham, who returned it to the Pitt 26.

The pick led to Miliano's fourth field goal of the game, and the Bearcats held on. Barely.

"You can't have turnovers inside your own 30, especially against an offense like Cincinnati that's high-powered and can score a lot of points," Sunseri said. "So, I've just got to make sure I play turnover-free, keep the ball high and tight and learn from our mistakes."

There were some positives for the Panthers. Cincinnati came in allowing just 72.7 yards per game on the ground, second in the country behind Alabama.

The Panthers had that number by halftime even without star running back Ray Graham, who tore the ACL in his right knee against UConn. He underwent surgery on Monday and led his teammates onto the field just before the opening kickoff, slowly working his crutches across the turf.

His presence helped stake the Panthers to a 16-13 halftime lead. The Panthers, however, couldn't keep the momentum going.

The offensive line collapsed, Sunseri - who completed 24 of 38 passes for 218 yards and a score - had no time to throw and the Bearcats started containing Zach Brown, who ran for 54 yards in place of Ray Graham.

In the end it was enough to move the Bearcats closer to an unlikely third Bowl Championship Series berth in four years. And they've done it by showing a flair for the dramatic.

Cincinnati has trailed by nine points in the second half of each of its three league games. And won all three.

"It's trust, belief, confidence," Pead said. "It's confidence in what we do day in and day out in practice. ... Every piece that a team should have I think we have."