Canes can't eye big prize yet

Sitting atop the Bowl Championship Series standings and owning the nation's longest winning streak at this point in the season, the University of Miami football team is three victories away from sewing down another visit to the national championship game next January.

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 season.

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