Ask fans of either school if the Pitt-Miami contest is a rivalry, and you're going to get mixed answers. Most of that is because how the series has been one-sided for much of it. In the beginning, the Panthers controlled the series. As Pitt's dominance of eastern football carried from the late 1970s to the 1980s, Miami took over the rule as the premier eastern football program, as the Panthers faded into mediocrity. The Hurricanes lead the all-time series 21-9-1, as the Panthers have lost 14 of the last 15 meetings.
Even in these last 15 meetings, the series has had some memorable and key meetings:
- Craig Heyward rushes for 254 yards in a 37-10 defeat, but earned respect on a national level and from the talented Miami defensive players for the way he ran over Miami's defense.
- Pitt ends its losing streak against the Hurricanes with a monumental 21-17 win in front of a nationally televised audience on another Thursday night game. The Panthers are 3-1, and the win propelled the program to its first winning season in six years, as well as its first bowl appearance in eight years.
- Hoping for the same kind of Thursday night magic they had four years earlier, Pitt fell to top-ranked Miami, 43-21. It marked the first Thursday night game ever at Heinz Field. Future NFLers Clinton Portis and Willis McGahee rushed for 131 and 74 yards respectively. Rod Rutherford came on in relief to throw for a score, and run for two scores.
- In a matchup that decided the Big East title, unbeaten Miami held off Pitt 28-21. The game is most memorable for Pitt fans for the fact that Rutherford, similar to the way Heyward did in 1986, bowled over a Miami defender-- linebacker Jonathan Vilma.
- The two teams met in the regular-season finale at Heinz Field with BCS implications on the line. Larry Fitzgerald tied the NCAA mark with his 18th consecutive game with a touchdown catch, but it was not enough as Miami held on for a 28-14 win. This would also mark Miami's last conference game as a member of the Big East. It would be another seven years until the two teams would meet again.
The coaching ties, especially in this matchup, will be a big storyline heading into the game. This is the first time that Dave Wannstedt will be on the same field as the Miami Hurricanes since he left the college game in 1989 to become the defensive coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys. Ironically, two players from his defensive unit, will be coaching in this game--Miami head coach Randy Shannon and Pitt linebackers coach Bernard Clark. In the 1986 Orange Bowl, during Wannstedt's first year as Miami's defensive coordinator, Clark earned MVP honors in the 20-14 win over Oklahoma, as the Canes captured the national title.
There's also Miami offensive coordinator Mark Whipple and receivers coach Aubrey Hill with ties to Pittsburgh. Whipple was a former quarterbacks coach with the Steelers. His son Spencer Whipple began his collegiate career as a walk-on at Pitt, before transferring to UMAss. He is now a backup quarterback for the Hurricanes. Hill was Pitt's first receivers coach under Wannstedt, holding that post from 2005-2007, before going back to his home state of Florida.
WHO TO WATCH FOR
The Hurricanes seem to have found a player to build around in quarterback Jacory Harris. Harris was recently named to the Davey O'Brien watch list, and has started 15 games over the last two years. Last year, he was the first Miami quarterback since Ken Dorsey--who quarterbacked Miami to a pair of national championships--to throw for over 3,000 yards in a season. His 3,352 yards was second in the ACC, but more importantly, he guided the team to nine wins--a sign that shows Miami coming back to the nation's elite.
At running back, Miami returns a pair of talented seniors in Graig Cooper and Damien Berry. Cooper led the team with 695 yards and four touchdowns, followed by Berry who had 616 yards and eight touchdowns. The question heading into the season will be if one surpasses the other to become the every-down back, or will they both continue to share the carries. Either way, the running games looks ample enough to supplement whatever quarterback Harris does through the air.
Miami also returns their leading receiver in Leonard Hankerson, also a senior. Hankerson was Harris' go-to guy, catching 45 passes for 801 yards and six touchdowns.
Seniors Colin McCarthy and Allen Bailey spearhead the defense, joined by junior cornerback Brandon Harris. McCarthy, an outside linebacker, finished second on the team last year with 95 tackles, and was second with 10.5 tackles for a loss. Bailey, who anchors the defensive line, led the team with seven sacks. Harris was one of three players tied for the team lead with two interceptions.
The offensive line features sophomore Brandon Washington, and seniors Orlando Franklin and Joel Figueroa. Washington worked his way into the starting lineup by the end of the season, making two starts. Franklin has 27 career starts under his belt, and was an ACC honorable mention selection last year. Figueroa has 12 career starts. The offensive line has a couple of big holes to fill with the graduation of Jason Fox (47 career starts) and center A.J. Trump (23 career starts). With a good nucleus returning, and the addition of top prospect Seantrel Henderson, the unit should be effective. Having an experienced starter like Harris at quarterback should help give the line time to gel.