But the defending national champion Hurricanes probably won't be
anywhere near Tempe, Arizona come Jan. 3 if they don't finish the regular
season in the same manner they started it- undefeated.
The BCS/AP poll/ ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll top-ranked Hurricanes
(9-0, 4-0) can take another step towards a second consecutive national
championship by walking out of the Orange Bowl with their sixth outright Big
East Conference title in 12 years and 32nd consecutive victory. Standing in
the way: the upstart No. 17 Pittsburgh Panthers (8-2, 5-0), who lead the
Hurricanes by a game in the Big East.
"We can't overlook the present and start looking at the future," said
Miami coach Larry Coker, who was on the staff when the Panthers pulled off a
21-17 upset victory over the Hurricanes in 1997. "This football team
understands that if they keep winning then things will work out at the end
of the year. But all we're worried about right now is Pittsburgh. They have
an outstanding football team and present a tremendous challenge for us."
Pittsburgh, who has never finished higher than third in the Big East,
would win the conference with victories over Miami and West Virginia in
their final two regular season games. But regardless there is a sense of
accomplishment in the city of Pittsburgh when it comes to college football.
Although there was some skepticism that accompanied the hiring of Walt
Harris in 1996 after a failed four-year tenure under legendary coach Johnny
Majors, the Panthers are currently experiencing something they haven't in a
while- winning. Before Harris took over the Panthers had not finished with a
winning record since 1991. Now in his sixth season at the helm Harris has
the Panthers going in the right direction.
Pittsburgh has won 14 of their last 16 games- losing to Texas A&M 14-12 and
Notre Dame 14-6 earlier this season- dating back to October of last year,
which included a Florida Tangerine Bowl victory over North Carolina State.
The Panthers have not dropped a conference game since Oct. 20, 2001 at
Boston College. And if that isn't enough to have the Hurricanes undivided
attention the Panthers knocked off then-No. 3 and undefeated Virginia Tech
28-21 earlier this month.
"We're not there yet but we're making strides," said Harris, who is 35-33 at
Pittsburgh. "You look at programs like Miami and Oklahoma- to name a few-
and envision yourself up there with those guys in the future. This is a
great opportunity for our program to be facing Miami with so much at stake.
This is the kind of game we hope to play year in and year out."
Despite being somewhat limited on offense, the Panthers have been successful
thanks to the controlled play of junior starting quarterback Rod Rutherford
and a stingy defense that among the top 10 in the country. Rutherford, who
threw for 125 yards and two touchdowns in team's victory over Temple Nov. 9,
is 27th nationally in passing yards per game (219.8) and has 17 touchdown
passes this season. Rutherford has completed 145-of-273 for 2,198 yards this
season. He has also rushed for 294 yards and four touchdowns.
"Rutherford is poised and isn't going to make too many mistakes," said
Coker. "Our defense is going to have to be very patient with him."
And Rutherford has a few prime targets.
Starting with freshman receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who has emergered as the
Panthers biggest downfield threat. Fitzgerald leads the team with 46
receptions and 684 yards for 14.9 yards per catch average. Fitzgerald has
eight touchdown receptions to his credit, including three in the victory
over Virginia Tech. Senior Lamar Slade has 40 receptions for 555 yards and
four touchdowns. Slade is averaging 13.9 yards a reception this season.
Pittsburgh's rushing offense has also caused the opposition some trouble
this season in key situations. Although they are ranked 75th in the country-
with 135.5 rushing yards a game- the Panthers have saved their best for most
critical of moments this season. Pittsburgh amassed over 300 yards rushing
against Virginia Tech, who entered the contest with the top-rushing defense
in the country.
Junior Brandon Miree anchors Pittsburgh's running game with a team-leading
591 yards and three touchdowns. Full back Lousaka Polite has rushed for 177
yards, while Raymond Kirkley has 152.
"We need to run the football to get things going for the rest of us," said
Rutherford. "That is pretty much a given."
The Panthers defense has been stellar for most of the season, allowing 282.2
yards a contest and ranked eighth nationally behind the Hurricanes (fifth,
allowing 270 yards a game). Pittsburgh, allowing 113.6 rushing yards a game,
has not surrendered more than 22 points to an opponent in a game all season.
Senior linebacker Gerald Hayes has a team-leading 103 tackles.
"We have to stay away from the big plays," said Pittsburgh defensive back
and former Miami Northwestern graduate Torrie Cox. "Miami can put a lot of
points in a hurry."
Miami, coming off perhaps their best overall performance of the season
in a 26-3 victory over Tennessee, Nov. 9, has won 12 of the last 13 meetings
against Pittsburgh. UM has outscored Pittsburgh 149-41 in the last four
games, averaging a 27-point margin of victory.
"We can't take anything for granted at this point," said UM quarterback
Ken Dorsey, who is 152 of 279 passing for 2,265 yards and 21 touchdowns this