With three games remaining on the schedule, the Miami Hurricanes are in the drivers seat for an invitation to the Fiesta Bowl. Now, all Miami has to do is win.
The first of those three games takes place Thursday when the Pittsburgh Panthers come to the Orange Bowl. The Panthers enter the game as one of the Big East’s most improved squads, with an 8-2 record overall and an unblemished 5-0 record in the conference, putting them one half game ahead of Miami atop the standings. Included in that record are key conference wins against Virginia Tech and Boston College.
The Hurricanes have the advantage, however, of an extra five days off since the 26-3 victory at Tennessee. Ken Dorsey played mistake free football en route to 245 yards and a touchdown pass on 18 of 35 passing. Dorsey has taken a while to get on the same page with his receivers during the first half of most of this season’s games, but has been able to settle down and win games. However, he is facing a solid Pitt secondary that surrenders just 170 yards per game.
On the ground, sophomore Willis McGahee scored his 17th TD of the year against the Volunteers, tying him with Edgerrin James for the single season school record. McGahee, who has 1188 yards on the ground, as well as 388 receiving yards on the year, will almost certainly break that record. The question will be how successful McGahee will be finding holes against a solid Pitt front seven. The Panthers give up 114 yards per contest on average.
Meanwhile, another Hurricane looks to continue lurking closer to setting a school record. Junior wide receiver Andre Johnson’s TD catch against Tennessee gave him 17 for his career, putting him fifth in team history in that department. More importantly for Dorsey, eight receivers were able to haul in at least one pass, including tight end Kellen Winslow, who leads Miami with 37 receptions in the 2002 season.
On defense, the Hurricanes’ run defense continued to show signs of significant improvement, despite giving up a 74-yard run to Cedric Houston on the second play of the Tennessee game. Against the Panthers, Miami faces feature back Brandon Miree, whose 588 yards on the season will not scare many teams. However, quarterback Rod Rutherford has shown an uncanny ability to use his feet, as the signal-caller has picked up 294 yards. Rutherford’s ability to run will likely be the most important thing for the Miami front seven to watch out for.
In addition, Rutherford’s significant improvement throwing the ball gives Miami one of their toughest tests at that position. Rutherford has completed 54 percent of his passes for 2198 yards and 17 touchdowns to 10 interceptions. The Miami secondary, arguably the best in the nation, will need to do a good job matching up against receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Lamar Slade. If those lanes are taken away, then the passing game should be a non-factor for the Panthers.
Perhaps the biggest bright spot for the ‘Canes was the reemergence of the special teams unit. Todd Sievers booted four field goals last Saturday and Freddie Capshaw had his best game of the season punting the football, averaging 42 yards a kick. In addition, the kick coverage continued to be excellent.
With Ohio State struggling to win games, most experts will agree that Miami is the most impressive all-around team at this point. The Hurricanes have shown an ability to run a balanced offense while employing the personnel good enough to have won a nation-best 31 straight victories. With dates remaining against an upstart but struggling Syracuse, and the season-finale against a Virginia Tech squad that has lost back-to-back contests, this might be Miami’s biggest test left on the schedule.
You can reach Jeremy Marks-Peltz at email@example.com.