On the field that night for the Hurricanes was Edgerrin James at running back, Reggie Wayne and Santana Moss at receiver, and Bubba Franks at tight end. Four first-rounders on the offensive side alone. The defense included future first-round picks Duane Starks at corner, and Dan Morgan at linebacker.
Pitt had Pete Gonzalez, who started at quarterback for the Panthers that night. Gonzalez completed 19-of-33 passes that night for 187 yards and two touchdowns in the air. The first thing he recalls about that game, was the talent Pitt had to face up to on that other side.
"I don't remember much about the anticipation leading up to that game, but I do remember Miami's offense having Reggie Wayne, Santana Moss, Edgerrin James--all first-round picks," Gonzalez said. "On defense, they had Duane Starks and Dan Morgan. I remember talking to Coach (Walt) Harris before that game. He told me that he hadn‘t seen a more talented squad of athletes since he coached at Ohio State."
Wayne caught nine passes for 137 yards. Franks caught a 15-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter that tied the game up at 14-14. James rushed for 109 yards on 20 carries. Yet, an unknown group of Pitt seniors was able to overcome all this firepower. Gonzalez, aided by strong performances by linebacker Phil Clarke and safety John Jenkins on defense, pulled out a 21-17 win over Miami, before a crowd of 40,194--the biggest Pitt Stadium had seen since the 1995 Ohio State game--a predominantly Buckeye crowd.
Middle linebacker Phil Clarke led the Panthers in tackles that night, and recalls as a Miami native, the excitement of heading into the Pitt-Miami game.
"I grew up a Florida State fan, so I grew up always wanting to watch Miami lose," Clarke said. "That's one of the reasons I cam to Pitt, because it gave me an opportunity to inflict revenge on them for beating my former squad.
"That game, though, it was great for me to play on Thursday night. I was beside myself. I remember dreaming the night before the game. The leadup to the game was awesome."
Clark recalls a last-minute uniform change, that got the players even more fired up.
"We went in (to the locker room), and changed up into all blue," Clarke said. "That was big. That got the crowd into a mindset that it would be a different game; that it wasn't going to be another Miami game with them running up the score."
The game started off with a 57-yard touchdown pass from Miami quarterback Ryan Clement to Carlo Joseph. The Panthers answered with a five-play, 65-yard drive, capped by a four-yard touchdown pass from Gonzalez to Terry Murphy.
Gonzalez hit Jake Hoffart with a ten-yard touchdown pass right before halftime, followed up by a shuffle pass from Gonzalez to Dwayne Schulters for the two-point conversion. Pitt led 14-7 at halftime. According to safety John Jenkins, he said there was no special plan, or anything for this game.
"The coaches let us go out and play," Jenkins said. "We were coming off a great win in Houston. It was a billion degrees, and we had a lot of guys playing a lot of positions."
Jenkins credit's the win in Houston, just five days earlier, on the road, as a big factor in Pitt's win in 1997. He had a good vibe, starting the beginning of the week in practice.
"I actually felt it when we got off practice field, the first day after Houston game," Jenkins said. "We came in on Sunday, watched film on Sunday, lifted weights. I don't think I've ever seen guys practice so focused."
After Franks' third-quarter touchdown, Miami tied up the score at 14-14. The team reflected back to that Houston game, a game they trailed at the early part of the fourth quarter. They made a couple big defensive plays in the fourth quarter, which carried over to this Miami game. With time running down in the third quarter, Gonzalez dropped back to pass on a 3rd-down at the Miami 12 yard-line.
"It's ironic, I thought that was one of those basic plays," Gonzalez said. "I'm dropping back, but you see it open, so I took off, and I scored."
As time expired, and Pitt leading 21-14 at the end of the third quarter, the crowd's response, and the lead heading into the fourth quarter was the furthest thing from Gonzalez' mind. His reaction was indicative to Pitt's turnaround that season, and perhaps why they were able to get the team to its first bowl game in eight years, and other accolades, such as its first road win in four years.
"I remember dropping the football in the end zone (after scoring the touchdown), thinking, ‘Uh oh, I just dropped the ball,'" Gonzalez said. "We had a commitment to Coach Harris that we would never drop the ball, just flick it to the official. I wasn't coachable on that play, to rub salt on my wound."
Did he hear it from Harris after the play?
"No," Gonzalez said with a laugh. "After we saw it on film the next day, I had to run stadium steps. I learned my lesson, just drop the ball."
Andy Crosland kicked a 35-yard field goal with 10 minutes to play in the game, cutting Pitt's lead to 21-17. After the offense was stopped, Miami was given one more chance. Clement led the Miami offense all the way down to the Pitt 34. Jenkins recalls the final series.
"Santana Moss had a deep ball (intended for him) that Chiffon Allen broke up," Jenkins said, referring to the first play of that final series. "On third down, (defensive end) Julian Graham was guarding Edgerrin James in the flat, and the fullback was wide open. Because Graham put that pressure, Clement overthrew the play."
It all came down to one final play, a 4th-and-5 at the Pitt 34.
"The call came in late," Jenkins said of that final play. "We weren't set. Our linemen weren't down. We were just standing, waiting to get into position. Clement snapped the ball. I was covering Franks at the time. He was so big. I remember thinking, ‘pick a side, hide behind him.' I did that. Clement, I don't even think he saw me. (Franks) was enormous. When I saw the ball thrown, all I did was make a play on the ball. That's what I did."
Jenkins' interception sealed the win for Pitt, ending an eight-game losing streak to Miami, and giving the Panthers a win over a ranked opponent for the first time in eight years.
"I think more important than that play, were the three plays leading up to that," Jenkins said of his interception.
The overall sense after the game, was that after beating Miami, this team now believed they could compete with anyone.
"I knew if we could come away with that win, it would be one that I would always remember," Clarke said. "That particular game played a huge role in us having confidence later on in the season, against Virginia Tech and West Virginia."