Panthers Team Report

It's Homecoming Weekend for the Panthers and look for a high-scoring affair at Heinz Field. Pittsburgh is averaging 34.8 points and 421.8 yards, but the defense has been leaky and Syracuse has the weapons (tailback Walter Reyes, mobile quarterback R.J. Anderson, athletic wideout Johnnie Morant) to cause loads of problems.

The Panthers are the Big East football equivalent of the Dallas Mavericks: They give up lots of points, but they have WAY too much firepower for most teams on their schedule.

Pitt is 19th in the nation in scoring (34.8 ppg) and features the unstoppable pass-catch combo of senior QB Rod Rutherford and sophomore wideout Larry Fitzgerald. Rutherford has thrown for seven times as many TDs (21) as interceptions (three) this season and is fifth in the nation in passing efficiency (167.9).

The 6-3 Fitzgerald is one of the Heisman Trophy frontrunners, and leads the nation in receiving yards per game (144.8), points per game (13) and touchdown receptions (13). He should add to his gaudy numbers against a rebuilt Syracuse secondary that had trouble stopping Fitzgerald last season in a 48-24 loss to the Panthers.

Of Fitzgerald, ABC announcer Brent Musburger said, "It's been a long time since I have seen a college receiver who make the catch in the air like Larry Fitzgerald. He reminds you of Cris Carter in that end zone. If he can touch it, he's got it."

Pitt's offensive line and running game have been slowed by injuries, although the o-line is starting to heal. However, starting senior tailback Brandon Miree has a stress fracture in his right heel and will be out indefinitely, meaning that sophomore Jawan Walker (two TD runs vs. Rutgers last week) will be the Panthers' No. 1 back for the foreseeable future. Walker needs to inject some life into Pitt's moribund ground game (130 yards rushing per game) or the Panthers won't be able to reach the lofty preseason expectations.

The serious issues are with Pitt's defense. The Panthers were scorched by Rutgers' still-learning sophomore quarterback Ryan Hart (384 yards), a week after allowing Notre Dame's Julius Jones to set an Irish record with 262 yards rushing.

Despite the presence of seven seniors from a unit that was tough to move the ball against last year, Pittsburgh is 86th in total defense (406.8 yards allowed per game) and passing defense (245.8) and 70th in rushing defense (161.0).

Senior DE Claude Harriott, billed as an All-American candidate, has been slowed by a sprained ankle and has managed just two sacks this season. Harriott (9.5 sacks in 2002) must regain his old form if Pittsburgh is to go to a top-tier bowl in 2003.

The Panthers (4-2 overall, 1-0 Big East) must put more bite in their defense and soon. They'll be facing two of the nation's top running backs in Syracuse's Reyes and Boston College senior Derrick Knight. And later this season, the Panthers line up against two of the top three teams in the land -- Miami and Virginia Tech.


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