Pittsburgh Panthers Team Report

Following the 28-14 loss to Miami in the regular-season finale -- a game in which the Panthers were manhandled in the trenches -- Pittsburgh had to settle for the Continental Tire Bowl.<br><br> The Panthers will play. Virginia on Dec. 27 rather than in the Orange Bowl, which would have been possible with a win over the Hurricanes.

Miami's pass defense -- a unit that was ranked second nationally heading into the Big East finale -- dominated Pittsburgh's explosive offense.

Senior Rod Rutherford, the Big East's most efficient passer all season, was spied on all game long by Miami's stud outside linebacker D.J. Williams and was held in check. In fact, Rutherford, a guy who can hurt defenses with his cannon left arm and his nimble feet, was sacked a whopping nine times, including three by Williams. Sophomore Larry Fitzgerald (86 catches, 1,595 yards, 22 TDs) was limited to just three receptions for 26 yards and one score, his 18th straight game with at least one TD catch.

While the loss to Miami no doubt stings, the Panthers are going to their fourth straight bowl game. And with Miami heading to the ACC, Pittsburgh will be one of the favorites in the newly-configured Big East next fall.

Bowl Scenario
Disappointed with its poor performance against Miami in the regular-season finale, Pittsburgh (8-4) is headed to the Continental Tire Bowl in Charlotte, N.C., to play Virginia on Dec. 27. Pittsburgh better bring its A-game, because the Cavaliers enter the bowl off a 35-21 win over Virginia Tech and feature a well-balanced offense and a speedy defense.

On defense, Pitt's season-long problem has been its inability to stop the run. That weakness reared its ugly head yet again when the Hurricanes rushed for 280 yards on 52 carries and produced two 100-yard rushers in freshman Tyrone Moss and senior Jarrett Payton. Virginia features a well-balanced attack with the passing of senior quarterback Matt Schaub and the running of sophomore Wali Lundy and junior Alvin Pearman.

On offense, even though Miami did an outstanding job of defending them, there might not be a more feared pass-catch duo in the country than ultra-accurate Rutherford (35 TD passes, 13 INTs) and All-American Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald has 34 touchdowns for his career, the most ever by a sophomore in NCAA history. He's widely regarded as one of the best players in the college game and will be out to rebound from his subpar game against Miami. He'll likely be covered for most of the bowl game by Virginia's top corner Almando Curry, who has six interceptions. Of course, Curry will have help with Fitzgerald.

Who's better?
Pittsburgh senior TE Kris Wilson and Virginia sophomore TE Heath Miller, two of the nation's very best tight ends -- Wilson, one of three finalists for the John Mackey Award (given to the nation's best tight end), has an NFL body and makes opposing defenses pay when they devote too much manpower toward stopping Larry Fitzgerald. Wilson has snared 42 balls (including nine TD catches) this season. Meanwhile, Miller earned a spot on the 2003 All-ACC first team. Heading into the bowl game, Miller has caught 66 passes (an ACC single-season record for a tight end) for 751 yards and five touchdowns.

Pittsburgh senior QB Rod Rutherford and Virginia senior QB Matt Schaub -- These two Pennsylvania products have different ways of getting things done, but both could be NFL backups next fall. Rutherford is more of a pass-run threat who has thrown for 3,433 yards, 35 TDs and just 13 INTs this season. Schaub, who missed three games due to injury this year, is a drop-back, precision passer who has completed 70.2 of his passes for 2,708 yards, 17 TDs and nine INTs this fall. NFL scouts will be in Charlotte to check out both signalcallers.

"We're not satisfied, and we won't be until we're playing for national championships." -- Pittsburgh athletic director Jeff Long, in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review after the regular-season-ending 28-14 loss to Miami that cost Pitt a piece of the Big East title and a trip to a BCS game.

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