Nevertheless, the Panthers can gain some measure of respect by beating the Cavaliers. It would give them a second consecutive 9-4 season, and a third consecutive bowl victory. The Panthers beat Oregon State in the Insight Bowl in 2002 and North Carolina State 34-19 in the 2001 Tangerine Bowl. They are making their fourth consecutive postseason appearance, a streak that started in 2000 with a 37-19 loss to Iowa State in the Insight.com Bowl.
Coach Walt Harris will hope his Panthers regain their running form. The running game has been a problem all season, mostly because of an injury to RB Brandon Miree. After suffering a stress fracture in his leg in September, Miree returned to action with a 27-carry, 188-yard rushing day against Temple on Nov. 22.
That was seen as a signal the running game had returned, but it disappeared again against Miami. The Panthers managed only a net 26 yards rushing against the Hurricanes, and Miree was held to 27 yards on a mere 10 carries.
WR Larry Fitzgerald also was held to only three catches against Miami. Since then, however, he picked up the Walter Camp Award as the nation's top player -- the first sophomore to win the award -- and the Biletnikoff Award as the nation's top receiver. He finished second in Heisman Trophy balloting to Oklahoma's Jason White.
Game of the Year
Miami 28, Pittsburgh 14 - With a share of the Big East title and likely BCS bowl berth on the line in the season finale, the Panthers came up way short against the Hurricanes. Fitzgerald was held to only three catches, and the Panthers could gain only 26 yards on the ground while giving up 280. QB Rod Rutherford also was picked off three times. The Panthers scored first, then gave up four consecutive TDs to Miami before scoring a late touchdown to trim the final margin to two touchdowns.
Pittsburgh vs. Virginia, Continental Tire Bowl, Charlotte, N.C., Dec. 27
Matchup to Watch
WR Larry Fitzgerald vs. CB Almondo Curry - Fitzgerald was held to only three receptions in his last game, but one of those was good for a touchdown. Curry leads Virginia in interceptions with six, but standing only 5-8 up against the 6-3 Fitzgerald, he will definitely need some help defensively.
Players to Watch
WR Larry Fitzgerald - He had a spectacular season, catching touchdown passes in every game and setting four single-season school records (87 receptions, 1,595 yards, 22 touchdown catches, 10 100-yard receiving games) and three career Big East receiving records (34 touchdown catches, two 1,000-yard receiving seasons, 14 career 100-yard receiving games).
QB Rod Rutherford - Somebody has to be throwing all those passes to Fitzgerald, right? This senior set Big East records of 3,433 passing yards and 35 touchdowns on 229-for-387 passing. He has 35 TD passes against only 13 interceptions.
TE Kris Wilson - The senior became an alternate target because Fitzgerald was getting so much attention. His touchdown reception against Miami was his ninth of the season. He was second to Fitzgerald with 42 catches for 589 yards.
LB Lewis Moore - Moved to the middle, the senior was Pittsburgh's leading tackler with 126 tackles, including 85 solo stops. He had one interception and 4.5 sacks.
WR Larry Fitzgerald - If he challenges the NFL rule regarding class status, he would be a top five pick.
TE Kris Wilson - His size (6-3, 240) and hands should get him a look as one of the top half-dozen or so TEs available.
With RB Brandon Miree (leg) back, the Panthers appear in good shape for the bowl game.
Quote to Note
"Whatever he chooses, we'll support him because he knows his situation best. We'd obviously love to have him back because he's played great for us, but the decision is his and not anybody else's." - Coach Walt Harris, on the possibility of sophomore Larry Fitzgerald challenging NFL draft rules and leaving early.