(photo Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
What a difference a year makes.
Last year, UC was neck and neck with Pitt for the Big East title as they played the "unofficial" championship game at Heinz Field. After getting blown away early, 31-10, the Bearcats eventually came back to tie the game at 44 with :33 left on the clock thanks to Tony Pike finding Armon Binns in the right corner of the endzone with a step on his man.
Let us rehash it again...it was the BIGGEST catch in UC history. An extra point later, UC had it's first lead and seconds later it's second Big East title.
"It's gone by so fast," said Binns. "That feels like it was just yesterday."
That it does. I've seen a few comebacks, but none as dramatic and gutty as that one on Pitt's snowy, gooey natural turf. That Binns highlight will live as long as Ryan Fletcher's inbound pass to Kenyon Martin that K-Mart directed to Melvin Levett for the dunk that beat Duke.
In recent memory, it's the classic Bearcat highlight of any sport.
"It's probably one of the greatest feelings I've ever had," recalled Binns.
"Just to be in a game that tight and go through so much adversity--then for it to come down to that one play and I actually made the play!"
Sadly, this year's Pitt game won't be as dramatic. Sure, it might well feature some awesome plays and it may come down to the wire, but Pitt's going to a lower tier bowl and UC's going back to the weight room and/or drawing board. Certainly, when ABC/ESPN selected this game they weren't anticipating 6-5 vs. 4-7.
However, that's the way the Big East has shaken down this year with most teams capable of beating any of the others in the league on any given Saturday/Friday/Thursday.
"That's just been the way it goes," said Binns. "Life is about seasons. This season's been a rough one. We've had to battle some teams and the ball just hasn't bounced our way."
Perhaps the understatement of the year.
Early on, most thought with the addition of Vidal Hazelton, that there wouldn't be enough balls to accommodate Binns, DJ Woods, Marcus Barnett and some of the incoming freshmen. Then Hazelton was injured, a transfer and a freshman that would've contributed were ruled ineligible and suddenly Armon Binns and DJ Woods took turns as the "go to" guy.
While team results have been far from satisfying. Binns has surpassed his junior numbers by hauling down 72 passes for 1072 yards and 10 TDs. In most games that UC has done well, Armon Binns has made an acrobatic catch or two.
"God's been good, it's been a real good season," said Binns of his individual efforts. "I've made some plays and I've made some mistakes, but I feel like I've definitely gotten better from last year to this year."
That's 133 catches for over 2,200 yards and 21 TDs in a two-year span. Apparently, the only person who could stop Armon Binns was former coach Brian Kelly who limited his playing time in his first two years when he had all of two receptions.
"That's just the way it worked out," shrugged Binns. "I feel it made me better. It made me sit back and be patient."
Hopefully, that patience is rewarded further Saturday when Binns joins his fellow Seniors in a departing game. The tough thing is, the Panthers fully remember who spoiled their season in '09 and that gentleman wears #80. At 6-3 and over 200 pounds, it's tough for Armon Binns to hide.
"I'm sure they'll be gunning for me," said a grinning Binns. "They're a great team, it's a great rivalry. I think it's a fitting way to end a Senior year and get a win."
That win won't come easy as Binns and Coach Butch Jones know. After dominating this series over the years, Pitt has taken it on the chin twice against the Bearcats late in the season. After a year to study videotape, you can bet the Panthers have Binns on their radar.
"I know the safeties are pretty good," said Binns. "I know Holley (Jarred) is leading the Big East in picks. They've got two new corners but they're a pretty physical group."
Maybe not physical enough to instigate a fight as you saw when the NFL Titans DB tried to instigate and infuriate Houston's Andre Johnson, but Dave Wannstedt's Panthers will get in your face. Binns is not a confrontational type of guy, so he's not worried about any potential "shady" tactics by the defense.
"The guy that I'd probably be doing that with is gone right now," said Binns. "I'm sure it'll be a lot of talking, a lot of jawing back and forth and it'll be fun."
Possibly adding to the fun would be a win. Again, this is pretty much UC's bowl game and this is a chance for the Bearcats to show the world that the team that nearly beat Oklahoma will be a force to be reckoned with for years to come. Mark this season down as an aberration and get ready for 2011.
In the meantime, 2010 must be ushered out and Armon Binns will be on hand with his Mom, Dad and brother celebrating the end of a historic Bearcat career. Like many who will walk with their families, Binns has dreams of making the one last big play to "ride off into the sunset".
Specifically, #80 hopes to break loose from a Pitt Panther again and find the endzone at Nippert one last time.
"God willing, sounds good to me," said Binns. "Maybe two or three."
Given the statistical trend of this year's squad, UC might well need that many.