All the talk going into tonight's game had the Panthers painted as the disrespected or undervalued team. Miami needed to watch out – this was not the same Pittsburgh team of years' past. The BIG EAST title was within grasp and this improved bunch was out to earn some respect this season. Of course doing this would mean entering the lion's den and coming out with something equally as important to the Canes – a win.
It has been said all season that only Miami can beat Miami. Yet whenever the 8-2 – now 8-3 – flavor of the week heads to town, all the talk is on the Canes being in for the "challenge" of the season. The Vegas line has Miami at -20.5 but the media predicted a game closer than the experts thought. Anything to sell tickets or pump up the hype I guess. Miami walked away with a seven point win, yet any Cane alive would've been thrilled with a one point win. Screw the Vegas line – we want wins and a Fiesta berth.
Still, shouldn't the selling point be the Canes and not the next opponent – or victim – on deck? Why isn't the focus strictly on Miami and this unprecedented win-streak?
Last season the questions began flowing after the Canes had to survive the trip to Chestnut Hill. Boston College took Miami to the wire in the eighth contest of 2001. The 18-7 thriller had many questioning if the Canes had enough gas in the tank to get to Pasadena. Three big games remained and none were a gimmie.
A week after the Boston College triumph No. 14 Syracuse strutted into town on an eight game win streak with visions of knocking off the nation's elite. The hype and build up were similar to what the Canes deal with week in and week out this season. Could Bryant Mc Kinnie stop NCAA sack leader Dwight Freeney? Was a chink the in armor present after the nail biters with the Eagles? Did Syracuse have what it'd take to knock of the nation's top dog.
Not even close.
All the 59-0 beating of the Orangemen proved was how lethal the Canes were when clicking on all cylinders. If there still was any doubt it was erased the following week when No. 12 Washington was the opponent.
No fabricated motivation was needed in this one. All it took were seeing a purple "W" on a gold helmet for the Canes to flashback to that dark Seattle day in September 2000. While the media played up the fact that the Huskies had a 2-0 advantage on the Canes in the past decade, all the hype in the world couldn't deter from the fact that Miami played on their own agenda. The goal was to annihilate UW – and that they did. A win against this team was not enough. Embarrassment on a national level was the name of the game.
Taking down Pittsburgh with an explanation point was an important step in this mini playoff series Miami is facing. The tone was set with a dominating win at Tennessee a few weeks back and tonight's beating of the Panthers was step two in this four-step process. A trip to Syracuse to take on the Orangemen is on deck followed by a sixty-minute home stand against Virginia Tech on December 7th.
The Panthers brought their "A" game tonight. God bless them. Bloodied and battered, they pressed on and fought ‘till the final drive. No one was pulling up limp in this contest. A conference title was on the line – as was the pride of this BIG EAST up and comer. Pittsburgh threatened but in the end – yet Miami persevered. You don't win 32 in a row on accident. It goes beyond luck or fate. That only accounts for the occasional game. It takes heart, guts and soul to not lose a game in over 26 months.
All world, freshman receiver Larry Fitzgerald came into the game with a ton of hype. He left with a bloodied nose and a loss. He got his 74 yards and a touchdown but it wasn't enough to propel the Panthers to a win. His stellar play was the difference against Virginia Tech a few weeks back – but it wasn't enough to knock the Canes off the top perch. Too much was on the line tonight. A win tonight and was the first step. Syracuse is the next roadblock. Virginia Tech is the third and final challenge before a trip to the desert. Bring it on.
Kudos to Pittsburgh for leaving it all on the field – but it still wasn't enough. Their goal was a BIG EAST title – Miami's goal is Tempe. How many conference championship banners are hanging proud in the Orange Bowl? Not a one. Winning the BIG EAST means nothing when you are the Miami Hurricanes. It is a given – a consolation prize. An afterthought – merely icing on the cake. When you sport the orange and green it is all about National Championships. First prize is a Cadillac while second prize is a set of steak knives and second best isn't an option.
While Miami didn't play out of their minds this evening, they took care of business. The Panthers provided the most formidable conference challenge this season. No disrespect to Syracuse of Virginia Tech, but Pittsburgh played with a hunger that neither of these teams possess. A conference title was within reach, the studied the Canes' weaknesses and brought their best game. In the end they were still seven points too short. There wasn't enough gas in the tank to take down the nation's elite.
The Canes deserve a "job well done" on tonight's victory – but there is no reason for heads to be swollen. It was business as usual in the Orange Bowl. Another foe defeated and yet one more notch on the best. Damn, 32 in a row sounds nice – but 35 sound that much better.
Still, it is all a moot point if Miami can't bring it against Syracuse and Virginia Tech. A loss at this point is like a death in the family. Unexpected and impossible to fathom. A goal has been set and anything less than Tempe will be a nightmare.
The Canes have nine days to assess the Pittsburgh situation and prepare for Syracuse. The 1998 Orange debacle aside, Miami has been dominant in the Carrier Dome. A win next Saturday is more than a goal – it is the next in line and more than expected. With a team as talented as the 2002 Canes, two more conference wins should be like money in the bank. No way on earth Miami should stumble. Destiny has lobbed a few up for this amazing bunch. The meat of the schedule has been digested. Take down these two final patsies and prepare for an amazing close to yet another incredible year.
While tonight wasn't perfect – it was a win over a formidable opponent. Enjoy it for 24 hours and begin preparations for Syracuse. Miami is a mere 120 game time minutes from another title berth.
If that is inspiration, please tell me what the hell is?
A win over Pittsburgh was tasty, but it merely whet the appetite. Take down the Orangemen, prepare for the Hokies and then we'll talk Tempe.
See ya' in nine days.
Born and raised in Miami, FL and a Grassy.com guest columnist since 1995, Chris Bello now resides in San Diego, CA. Feel free to send your comments or to contact him for potential writing assignments at firstname.lastname@example.org