Published September 22, 2010
| Associated Press
PITTSBURGH – Seven years later, Pitt is still trying to catch Miami.
The Panthers (1-1) never reached the Hurricanes' level when the two competed annually in a one-sided Big East Conference rivalry in which Miami won the final six games. Those games occasionally were close, but Miami (1-1) always seemed to have more speed, more depth, more big-time recruits, more pizazz, more of everything.
The gap has closed somewhat since Miami left the Big East to join the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2004, but not entirely. As usual, the Hurricanes are higher ranked — they're No. 19, and Pitt is among the teams receiving votes in the AP poll — and they're favored to win at Heinz Field on Thursday night.
Pitt, already dealing with a tough road loss at No. 13 Utah and several off-field incidents that provided some unwanted early season distractions, hopes to change all that as a usually entertaining series is revived for the first time since 2003.
So far, it's been a bad year for the Big East, as only No. 22 West Virginia is ranked, and five teams are .500 or below. Pitt doesn't want to make any worse.
"I don't know how to say this, but I think the Big East has something to prove," wide receiver Cam Saddler said. "We haven't been getting the respect around the nation this year. So this week is huge in that respect. It's a very important game for Pitt and our conference."
A loss drops Pitt below .500 during a season in which it was a near unanimous pick to win the league. The Panthers' offensive line isn't meshing, the Utah loss exposed vulnerabilities in pass coverage and second-team All-American running back Dion Lewis is averaging only 2.9 yards per carry.
Off the field, coach Dave Wannstedt is explaining why three players have been arrested since July, with two currently suspended.
Beating Miami, something Pitt has done only once in 15 meetings since 1984, would give the Panthers a confidence jolt. But Miami has the kind of speed from the top of its roster to the bottom that can trouble a team like Pitt that prefers outpunching an opponent to outrunning it.
Pitt's rebuilt offensive line also could be vulnerable to a talented Miami defensive front; the Hurricanes lead the country with an average of 12.5 tackles for a loss per game.
"They're a very dangerous team with speed at every skill position," linebacker Tristan Roberts said. "It's pretty much as big a challenge as we've had for a while. Everybody knows that Florida is recruited for speed, and Miami has some really fast players."
Miami coach Randy Shannon once played for and coached under Wannstedt, and he knows what a team that still employs a traditional blocking fullback wants to do to slow the 'Canes.
"They're going to slam it up in there, slam it up in there, slam it up in there and then throw a play action pass," Shannon said. "They have physical guys and get after you."
Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri hopes to get enough yardage from Lewis and backup Ray Graham to allow him to test 6-foot-5 receiver Jon Baldwin in man-to-man coverage. However, Lewis was slowed by both Utah and New Hampshire and, after two games, he has nearly 200 fewer yards than he had after two games last season.
After Lewis was held to 27 yards on 10 carries by New Hampshire, Graham took over to run for 115 yards on nine carries.
"They've got a nice 1-2 punch that's a key to this game," Shannon said.
Miami is playing for the first time since junior Jacory Harris was intercepted four times and the Hurricanes committed eight penalties during a 36-24 loss at No. 2 Ohio State on Sept. 11.
"I want to improve on being more focused on my job and not try to micromanage the whole offense or the defense," Harris said. "I'm going to leave it in the hands of Leonard Hankerson for the receivers, Tyler Horn for the offensive linemen and Damien Berry for the running backs and let everybody take control of their position. I'll just be a leader by taking care of my business."
Pitt, 1-10 against ranked non-conference opponents since 1996, is missing standout defensive end Greg Romeus, who had back surgery last week. His backup, Brandon Lindsey, already has two sacks. That's partly why Wannstedt hopes Pitt's depth — much better than it was when Miami was in the Big East — makes a difference in defending against Berry, who ran for 94 yards against Ohio State, and kick returners Travis Benjamin and Lamar Miller, each of whom scored against the Buckeyes.
Miami has won 32 consecutive games against unranked, non-conference opponents during the regular season, but is 7-10 in road games against teams from Bowl Championship Series conferences since Shannon took over in 2007.