All this from a team that entered the season with thoughts of winning its first Big East title and a BCS bowl bid.
"It's very disappointing," said WR Larry Fitzgerald, who was one of the reasons for the early optimism. "We fell short of our goals. All of us have to live with that."
The Panthers were strong in the skill positions, even though an injury sidelined RB Brandon Miree for more than half the season. Fitzgerald, runner-up in the Heisman race as a sophomore, was joined by Princell Brockenbrough at wideout and TE Kris Wilson and QB Rod Rutherford enjoyed solid seasons. The Panthers led the Big East in passing by a wide margin, averaging better than 291 yards per game through the air.
But the Panthers came up woefully short at the line of scrimmage. In their losses, they simply were dominated up front on both sides of the ball. In those five defeats, the Panthers managed only 53.2 rushing yards per game. For the season, the Panthers gave up 43 sacks, and opponents outgained them 185-117.5 on the ground. The loss of Miree, to a stress fracture in his calf suffered in the third game of the season, sent the Panthers running game going south and they were never able to get back in sync after that.
Losses to Toledo on the road and Notre Dame at home early on took much of the luster off the season, but the Panthers still got things going in Big East play and held first place after victories over Rutgers, Syracuse and Boston College and Miami's loss to Virginia Tech. After beating Virginia Tech, the Panthers were 4-0 in conference play for the first time, but the next week they lost at West Virginia on Nov. 15. They still had a shot at a share of the title when they played host to Miami on Nov. 29. But instead of a likely Orange Bowl berth, the Panthers were dominated and lost 28-14 to fall to the Continental Tire Bowl.
Even if WR Larry Fitzgerald returns, the Panthers face some big losses offensively. QB Rod Rutherford departs, leaving Luke Getsy (3-for-13 passing in 2003) to battle Tyler Palko (2-for-3 in 2002) for the starting job. Palko sat out 2003 as a redshirt. RB Brandon Miree and TE Kris Wilson also depart, as do three interior linemen. On defense, the Panthers lose five seniors, including DE Claude Harriott. The key returnee up front is NT Vince Crochunis. With Miami and Virginia Tech departing for the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Panthers could contend in the depleted Big East.
Players to watch in 2004
WR Larry Fitzgerald - He is expected to petition the NFL for the right to enter next spring's draft, but he was coy about his plans after the bowl game, noting he was going to be enrolled at Pittsburgh for the next semester. He had a spectacular 2003 season, stretching his consecutive game streak with a touchdown reception to 18 before failing to score in the bowl game.
WR Prince Brockenbrough - Nagging injuries hampered Brockenbrough early, but he still caught 35 passes for 615 yards playing opposite Fitzgerald. If Fitzgerald leaves, he will become a prime target.
WR Greg Lee - The true freshman played in only eight games but caught 10 passes for 211 yards. If Fitzgerald leaves for the NFL, Lee will be someone who needs to step up.
QBs Tyler Palko and Luke Getsy - They will battle in the spring for the job of replacing the departed Rod Rutherford. Palko played sparingly as a true freshman in 2002, then sat out 2003 as a redshirt. Getsy got his redshirt season in 2002 and made only brief appearances in 2003. Both are considered talented prospects.
Quote to Note
"We're not as physical a football team as we need to be." - Coach Walt Harris, critiquing his team after the loss to Virginia.