Taking it with them
Miami downs Pittsburgh to clinch its last Big East title
Posted: Sunday November 30, 2003 2:22AM; Updated: Sunday November 30, 2003 2:25AM
PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Miami is leaving the Big East Conference just the way it entered it 11 years ago -- on top, with everybody else playing catchup.
Tyrone Moss and Jarrett Payton became the latest running backs to exploit No. 20 Pitt's weak rush defense, running for more than 100 yards each, and No. 10 Miami locked up a share of its eighth Big East title and a BCS bowl by winning 28-14 Saturday night.
Miami (10-2, 6-1) shares the conference title with West Virginia (8-4, 6-1), but it's the Hurricanes that are heading to a big bowl -- almost certainly the hometown Orange Bowl, where they last played during the 1994 season. The opponent might be Ohio State in a rematch of last season's national title game.
"That's our fourth Big East championship in a row and our seniors have won four in a row." coach Larry Coker said. "That's exciting."
That must have been how Moss and Payton felt when they saw tape of Pitt's defense. Moss ran for touchdowns of 30 and 6 yards and Payton had a 1-yard touchdown run as Miami scored on three consecutive first-half possessions to turn a 7-0 deficit into a 21-7 lead.
Payton, who became the starter when Frank Gore was hurt against West Virginia on Oct 2., had 17 carries for 131 yards and Moss carried 21 times for 115 yards. Pitt's rushing defense -- 80th among the nation's 117 Division I-A schools -- now has allowed seven 100-yard rushers.
"There were a lot of things we wanted to attack," said quarterback Brock Berlin, an efficient 12-for-17 for 195 yards, including a 45-yard touchdown to Roscoe Parrish in the third quarter. "The running backs played tremendously and when something works, you stick with it."
Pittsburgh (8-4, 5-2) was playing its biggest game since the 1982 season, when it last appeared in a major New Year's Day bowl. But the Panthers did almost nothing after driving 74 yards on their first possession for Rod Rutherford's 2-yard touchdown pass to Kris Wilson.
Nothing new there -- Miami has outscored the Panthers 205-76 in winning their last six matchups, and is 10-1 against them in Big East play.
The Panthers, in the Top 10 earlier this season, will settle for the Continental Tire Bowl on Dec. 27 -- probably against Virginia -- in a disappointing season for a team that never figured out how to stop the run. In its last five games, Pitt allowed two 200-yard rushers and three 100-yard rushers, and it was outrushed 2,209-1,380 for the season.
"Miami just stuck it to us," defensive tackle Vince Crochunis said. "They made a lot of key plays on third down and we couldn't get our offense back on the field. They really came at us."
The Panthers also forgot how to do what they do best: get the ball to Larry Fitzgerald, enjoying one of the best seasons ever by a college receiver until being limited to a season-low three catches for 26 yards.
Fitzgerald extended his NCAA record to 18 consecutive games with at least one touchdown reception, on an 18-yarder with 2:45 remaining, his 22nd touchdown of the season. Not that it mattered much.
"I don't think we changed anything special in [defending] Fitzgerald," Coker said. "The key was to get pressure on the passer and we did that."
Rutherford was sacked nine times while going 17-for-30 for 206 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions. His 35 scoring passes are two short of Dan Marino's 1981 school record. Fitzgerald has 86 catches for 1,595 yards and 22 touchdowns.
Miami double-teamed Fitzgerald on nearly every play, with cornerback Antrel Rolle often pressuring him coming off the line of scrimmage. Pitt was already down 21-7 when Fitzgerald made his first catch with 13:34 left in the third quarter.
"Larry Fitzgerald doesn't worry about those things," coach Walt Harris said when asked if the performance severely hurt Fitzgerald's Heisman Trophy chances. "He isn't about a national TV audience. He plays for all the right reasons. He's upset because we didn't win the game."
Moss, who began the season as a third-team running back, ran four times for all of Miami's 48 yards on its first scoring drive late in the first quarter, finishing it off with a 30-yard touchdown run.
Moss then carried eight more times for 41 yards, including his 6-yard scoring run, on the first of consecutive 80-yard Miami touchdown drives. The long possessions turned the momentum and quieted a chilly crowd of 60,486 that withstood a gametime wind chill factor of 20 to watch the final Big East game with the league's current configuration.
With Pitt's Brandon Miree held to 29 yards a week after he ran for 188 against Temple, Miami led 280-36 in rushing -- numbers similar to West Virginia's 307-10 edge in its 51-32 win over Pitt two weeks ago.
The game's biggest play came on the second of Miami's 80-yard drives. With Pitt looking for Miami to throw to the strong side on third-and-9 from its 21, Jason Geathers caught a screen pass from Berlin behind three blockers and turned it into a 78-yard gain to the 1. Payton scored a play later.
Right about then, the scoreboard and clock went out and stayed off, depriving the Hurricanes of a visible reminder of how in command they were.