Cavanaugh’s Team

While the Pitt Panthers have had many a powerhouse team over the years, it would be hard to argue against the choice of their 1976 team as the greatest ever.

Outscoring their opponents by a combined count of 381-133 and beating every major rival by at least 17 points, coach Johnny Majors capped his undefeated final season with a 27-3 Sugar Bowl laugher against mighty Georgia. The “Georgia Dogs” did a passable job of containing All-American and future Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett in the first half, holding him to 65 yards in 17 carries. But while the Bulldogs were keying their defense towards stopping Dorsett, Panther quarterback Matt Cavanaugh, recovering from a broken leg, was shredding their secondary for 185 yards in leading his team to an insurmountable 17 point halftime lead. Following that MVP performance by Matt, the national championship vote was a mere formality, as the Panthers looked down at the rabble from the top of the mountain.

After a season like that, the only question was what could be done for an encore. With Dorsett now performing his heroics for the Dallas Cowboys, first year coach Jackie Sherrill’s squad was given little consideration in the pre-season polls. And when the injury-jinxed Cavanaugh broke his left arm in the first quarter of a season-opening loss to eventual champion Notre Dame, the Panthers dropped out of the top 10. The media largely wrote off the Pitt eleven as a Dorsett-driven one year wonder, and concentrated on the dogfight among the teams from the more traditionally powerful Division I conferences.

But with Cavanaugh on the mend after missing the first month, the Panthers gradually worked their way back up the ladder, turning on the offensive spigot to the tune of 39 points a game for the rest of the regular season. With the four major bowl games slotted for meetings between big time conference champions, the Panthers found themselves in the Gator Bowl facing the Clemson Tigers from the ACC.

And once the game began, the Tigers quickly discovered that “Matt’s team” wasn’t just a media moniker. Shattering all previous records for single game passing yards by a Panther quarterback, not to mention all existing Gator Bowl marks, Cavanaugh methodically picked apart the Clemson defense for four touchdowns and 387 yards in leading the Panthers to a 34 -3 win, their third straight bowl victory since the resurrection of the football program under Johnny Majors.

And if there was any question about whose team it was before the season began, it was answered on the playing field of Jacksonville. Matt Cavanaugh saw to that.

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