(Sports Network) Former Big East rivals come together this Thursday, as the Pittsburgh Panthers host the 19th-ranked Miami-Florida Hurricanes at Heinz Field.
These two programs were conference foes before Miami jumped over to the ACC, putting an end to the series in 2003. The Hurricanes own a commanding 21-9-1 lead in the all-time rivalry and they have won the last six encounters, including a 28-14 triumph in 2003.
The Panthers will try to put an end to Miami's run this weekend, as they play the second of three straight home games. Pitt began its homestand on September 11th, tallying a 38-16 triumph of New Hampshire, a FCS program.
"From a game standpoint, we have a lot of upside and a lot of work to do," stated head coach Dave Wannstedt. "It's exciting to be the coach of this team."
Pitt improved to 9-0 against FCS opponents with the win and showed it had moved past a 27-24 overtime loss at Utah to kick off the season.
Miami meanwhile, is coming of its first setback of the campaign, although a 36-24 loss at second-ranked Ohio State on September 11th could hardly be considered a major disappointment.
"It was a tough loss today for us, you can't win games when you turn the ball over the way we did," said Miami head coach Randy Shannon. "We said it was going to be a game of field position and we gave Ohio State a starting position of the 40-yard line, and you can't do that."
The Hurricanes, who opened the season with a 45-0 blanking of Florida A&M, are in the midst of a tough three-game road trip that will conclude at Clemson next weekend.
If Miami is to bounce back this week, it will need a much better game from QB Jacory Harris, who was picked four times in the loss to Ohio State. Harris threw for 232 yards and a TD, but was inconsistent, hitting on only 22-of-39 tosses. It was a far cry from his three-TD and no-INT performance in the opener.
Damien Berry churned out 94 rushing yards on 16 carries versus a tough Ohio State defense, so look for him to help take some of the pressure off Harris versus a formidable Pitt unit. Leonard Hankerson is another player to keep an eye out for, as he is clearly the team's top target with 13 receptions and 205 receiving yards thus far.
Defensively, the Hurricanes weren't all that bad versus Ohio State considering the unit was consistently put in bad spots due to the turnovers by the offense. Miami gave up 414 total yards in the game, though that number is a bit deceiving. Ohio State gained 181 yards on the ground, but behind only a 3.7 yard per carry average. Miami gave up another 233 yards through the air, but kept Ohio State to just a 12-of-28 effort on passes.
The effort though, was a big drop off from the opener, when Miami limited Florida A&M to just 110 total yards in a shutout. Some big plays also could have really made a difference against Ohio State, as Miami failed to record a single takeaway and had just one sack. Sean Spence paced the unit with 8.5 tackles, including two for a loss.
The key for Pittsburgh in this game is to get star RB Dion Lewis going, as he has managed just 102 rushing yards through the first two games. A legitimate contender for the Heisman Trophy following a remarkable freshman campaign, Lewis has found running room hard to come by and was even held to a career-low 27 yards on 10 carries against New Hampshire last game. Backup Ray Graham actually proved more effective against New Hampshire and paced Pitt with 115 yards and two scores on nine carries. Despite that performance, expect Lewis to carry the burden in this highly anticipated matchup.
The running game will need to be effective all season long to help remove some of the pressure from first year starter Tino Sunseri. The redshirt sophomore has thrown for three TDs against two picks thus far, and he completed an efficient 24-of-34 tosses for 275 yards in the win over New Hampshire. His primary target has been Jon Baldwin, who has accumulated 10 catches for 171 yards and two TDs on the season.
The Panthers failed to register a single sack in the opener versus Utah, but came up with six last game and that certainly helped in earning the victory over New Hampshire. The pass rush, though, is going against a much bigger and athletic line this Thursday and will be without its top pass rusher in DE Greg Romeus. The co-Defensive Player of the Year in the Big East in 2009 is out following surgery for a herniated disc and replacing him will be no easy task. The team, though, has hopes Chas Alecxih can build off a career performance against New Hampshire in which he registered three sacks.
The Pitt defense has really done well versus the run, allowing just under 200 yards through two games, and the unit has also come up with four takeaways. Expect the Panthers to bring the pressure after they saw Miami's QB toss four INTs last game.
This is a big game for both teams, as each still has something to prove early on in the season. Miami has more speed and is a little more athletic and that should help the Hurricanes earn the victory.