Miami came up short in first-downs, rushing yards, total offensive yards and time of possession. But despite another close call the top-ranked Hurricanes (10-0, 5-0) survived a final drive by the Panthers to record their 32nd consecutive victory and move closer to playing in the national championship Fiesta Bowl.
The defending national champion Hurricanes are now two victories short of sewing up a spot in the No. 1 vs. No. 2 game Jan. 3 in Tempe, Arizona. And that's all that matters in the eyes of Hurricanes coach Larry Coker.
"That was a very good football team," said Coker, who improved to 22-0 since taking over the Hurricanes. "Pittsburgh battled the whole way and never gave up. But the same can be said about our kids. They responded with the game on the line and showed a lot of resiliency. The bottom lines is we got it done and now have to keep winning. Our kids understand that."
Even with the game's outcome coming down to a fourth-and-5 from the Hurricanes 25-yard-line that turned into a Rod Rutherford to Yogi Roth incompletion by several inches in the end zone, Coker was pleased with the way the defensive unit rebounded on the final drive. After giving up two first downs that allowed Pittsburgh to maintain possession of the ball, the Hurricanes held Rutherford to 1-of-6 passing on the final drive, including the failed attempt to Roth.
"They were moving the ball pretty good and we could have folded. But these guys have shown in the past they step up to the plate in crucial situations. I wasn't too concerned about it."
Miami's defense, which surrendered 343 yards to Pittsburgh, started off strong by ending the Panthers first two offensive possessions of the game with sacks. But Pittsburgh managed to control the clock and stay in the game with a productive running game and short passes.
That was evident on Pittsburgh's third offensive possession when junior running back Brandon Miree (26 carries, 118 yards) gained 13 yards on three straight plays and Rutherford had a 16-yard keeper to set up a first and goal at Miami's five-yard. Pittsburgh tied the game on the following play. Rutherford had two more keepers- for 15 and 10 yards, respectively- to set up another Pittsburgh touchdown before the half. The Panthers had 193 yards rushing. But Coker didn't make much of it.
"A lot of what they did was because of Rutherford. He's a good runner and gives them something to work with," said Coker.
Aside from his high marks for the defense and sophomore running back Willis McGahee, who rushed for 159 yards on 19 carries, including scoring his single-season record 18th rushing touchdown of the season, Coker also commended senior quarterback Ken Dorsey for rebounding after a miserable first half.
Dorsey finished with 163 yards on 14 of 26 passing and a touchdown, after completing just five passes for 13 yards in the first half. Dorsey capped a 4-play, 71-yard scoring drive with a 30-yard touchdown pass to Andre Johnson that gave Miami a 21-14 lead early in the third quarter. Dorsey connected with Johnson for a 39-yard completion for a key play that preceded McGahee's 7-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.
"That's what makes Kenny the type of player he is," said Coker. "He makes play when his team needs him the most. There's no doubt he struggled somewhat. But the great ones don't stay down for long. Kenny certainly proved that."
Coker credited Pittsburgh for being well prepared and keeping the Hurricanes off balance for most of the game. But he must now turn the page and focus on Syracuse. The Hurricanes play the Orangemen, Nov. 30 at the Carrier Dome.
"We've talked about the fact we just need to win," said Coker. "We can't take anybody lightly at this point."
But the victory came at a prize for the Hurricanes who lost fifth-year senior defensive end Cornelius Green and junior receiver Kevin Beard with torn anterior cruciate ligament injuries during the game. Beard suffered the right-knee injury on a third-down pass midway through the second quarter after landing awkwardly on a Pittsburgh defender.
Green, also injured his right knee on a running play in the second quarter by Pittsburgh quarterback Rod Rutherford. Both players will miss the remainder of the season. Beard made 23 receptions for 262 yards and four touchdowns in 10 games. Green collected 31tackles and four sacks.
"It's a real shame because both of them were playing at a high level," said Coker. "They will obviously be missed."
One down (barely), two remain
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