Athens, OH (U-WIRE) -- The ESPN2 commentators called it the greatest game in the history of Ohio's football program.
The atmosphere in Athens made it difficult to disagree.
The Bobcats took advantage of their first time in the national spotlight in more than 35 years and pulled off a 16-10 overtime victory over the Pittsburgh Panthers in front of 24,545 jubilant fans Friday night at Peden Stadium.
Cornerback Dion Byrum, who in two games has scored more points than the Bobcats' offense, returned two interceptions for touchdowns, including an 85-yard pick of Pitt quarterback Tyler Palko's pass in overtime to clinch the victory for Ohio.
"We were blitzing," Byrum said of the second interception. "Two-step drop, and I jumped it. It didn't take much. I read the quarterback, I made the play, and it made the game."
"I was glad (Palko) was throwing it," Ohio coach Frank Solich said. "Dion's just got great instincts. Especially in that kind of situation when they're going to run deep on you. He did a great job of playing the ball. Nothing wrong with the call; it's just a matter of Dion being Dion and being in the right spot now three times for us."
In a game that featured a combined 476 yards of offense, Ohio relied on the big play of its defense to blunt the Pitt attack. True freshman defensive lineman Jameson Hartke sacked Palko twice, including once in the third quarter for a loss of 16 yards, and safety Todd Koenig recorded his first career interception at the beginning of the second quarter.
"We knew by the end of the first quarter that defense was going to have to win this game and put points up on the board, and we did," Hartke said. "We stepped it up and played as hard as we could, and luckily, we held them to three points."
Even though Ohio continued to struggle on offense, Solich had a few things to be happy about. Quarterback Austen Everson improved after last week's game, making fewer mistakes and guiding the offense into a better rhythm.
"I thought he played well as the game went on," Solich said. "I don't think he got off to a great start. I thought he missed some throws early in the game that generally he can make, but he's a great competitor; he kept battling back, battling back."
"We talked a lot about making plays when they needed to be made," Everson said. "Last week we struggled a lot on third down. Guys are more mentally in it. There were no first-game jitters."
Another bright spot for the offense was Voncarie Owens' play. Carrying the ball eight times for 26 yards brought a different look to the Bobcat backfield.
"He's got excellent quickness," Solich said. "Not a very big back, but he's a strong back. And he'll turn it up the field for you, and he'll get you yards with quickness and acceleration."
"Whenever they call my name, I'll step in to give the offense a spark," Owens said.
Ohio needed all the help it could get after a demoralizing opening kickoff. LaRod Stephens returned the ball 95 yards for a touchdown, and the Bobcats found themselves down seven before either offense stepped on the field.
"That's about as bad a start as you're going to get," Solich said. "Our players were really excited about playing the game, and then to have one returned on you right on the opening kickoff kind of takes all the wind out of you. But to their credit, they came back and continued to battle."
Over on the far sideline, Pitt's efforts did not satisfy first-year coach, Dave Wannstedt.
"When you're playing in a football game like this," he said, "when you're playing a team that's excited about their opportunities, the thing you can't do -the thing we stressed all week -is give them room to breathe. And we played right into their hands. We just completely took away any type of confidence that we might have been able to establish on offense. It's so disappointing. Right now it's obvious we're not a very good team."
Though no one is denying the importance of the victory, Solich is reluctant to concur with statements about the game's magnitude in Ohio football history.
"This gives us a win early in the season, and that's all it is." Solich said. "We'll try to build off of that."
(C) 2004 The Post via U-WIRE