Glory Days: Former Panthers reflect on early-2000s showdowns vs. VT


©George Gojkovich

Former Pitt wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald hauls in a pass during the Panthers’ 31-28 victory over No. 5 Virginia Tech at Heinz Field on Nov. 8, 2003. Photo credit: George Gojkovich/Pitt Athletics

By Steve Rotstein | Sports Editor

The No. 25 Virginia Tech Hokies are coming to Heinz Field Thursday night for a crucial conference showdown with the Pitt football team –– a visit that has been a death wish for the Hokies in the past.

Tonight’s game will be the 16th meeting between the former Big East and now ACC rivals. Virginia Tech leads the all-time series, 8-7, but Pitt is 4-0 at Heinz Field and has won two in a row in the matchup.

Last time the schools met in Pittsburgh in 2014, the Panthers won a defensive struggle between two unranked teams, 21-16. But the four games played between the Big East rivals from 2000-2003 hold a special place in Panthers lore.

VT was at the peak of its prowess under head coach Frank Beamer in the early 2000s, yet Pitt won three out of four and nearly swept four in a row. Although the Panthers just missed out on a historic upset in 2000, the game served as a turning point for the program, proving they could compete with any team in the country.

Oct. 28, 2000 — No. 2 Virginia Tech 37, Pitt 34

Coming off an undefeated regular season in 1999 and an appearance in the 2000 BCS National Championship Game, VT was in position for a trip back to the title game with electrifying sophomore quarterback Michael Vick at the helm.

The Panthers weren’t seen as much of a threat coming into raucous Lane Stadium in Blacksburg, Virginia. The Hokies were still undefeated in late October and had Vick –– the Heisman Trophy favorite and future No. 1 overall NFL Draft pick –– running the offense.

But Pitt linebacker Brandon Williams laid a brutal hit on Vick late in the first half, putting him out with an injury and nearly knocking the Hokies from the ranks of the unbeaten. Only Carter Warley’s 27-yard field goal with 16 seconds left allowed VT to escape with a 37-34 win.

Former Pitt offensive lineman Matt Morgan, who started the game as a redshirt freshman, has vivid memories of his first trip to Lane Stadium.

More than anything, Morgan remembers VT’s deafening entrance to Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” before the game. He said it was even louder that year because Vick waited until the rest of his teammates took the field before flipping a football and storming out of the tunnel.

“Most teams got intimidated by that stuff, but we just got a rise because we knew for whatever reason, [Pitt head coach] Walt Harris had their number,” Morgan said. “We always played them tougher than anybody did all year.”

Nov. 3, 2001 — Pitt 38, No. 12 Virginia Tech 7

The next year, a one-loss VT squad came to town still in the national title hunt, but unable to afford another stumble against the lowly Panthers. Meanwhile, Pitt struggled to a 1-5 start, prompting head coach Walt Harris to switch to a new offensive scheme. The move paid off as the Panthers rolled to a 33-7 win over Temple to move to 2-5.

But even with the improved offense, no one could have expected what happened the next week at Heinz Field. Pitt outgained the Hokies 393 yards to 151, allowing only 15 rushing yards on 25 attempts while forcing four turnovers in a 38-7 trouncing.

“I remember not even having to play the second half because we were kicking the crap out of them so bad,” Morgan said. “It was like the turning point of our season. We thumped the hell out of them. Everything was clicking.”

Former Pitt quarterback Rod Rutherford was just a backup as a sophomore in 2001 but did attempt two passes in the game. He played a starring role in the next two installments of the series, becoming one of the most accomplished quarterbacks in school history.

Rutherford, who is now a football coach and mentor at the NorthSide Youth Athletic Association, reflected on the shocking beatdown over the cries of his 13-month-old son, Rod Jr.

“Our defense played really well, I think they scored their only touchdown off a blocked field goal. Back then, our defense was fairly similar to theirs,” Rutherford said. “I was a young kid trying to find my way, really didn’t play too much that year, but it was cool.”

Pitt quarterback Rod Rutherford went 2-0 as a starter against Virginia Tech under head coach Walt Harris. Courtesy of Pitt Athletics
Pitt quarterback Rod Rutherford went 2-0 as a starter against Virginia Tech under head coach Walt Harris. Courtesy of Pitt Athletics

Nov. 3, 2002 — Pitt 28, No. 3 Virginia Tech 21

Pitt traveled back to Blacksburg in 2002 with intentions of spoiling Tech’s perfect season, and this time, the Panthers succeeded. It didn’t hurt that freshman sensation Larry Fitzgerald had arrived on campus to succeed All-American Antonio Bryant as the team’s No. 1 receiver.

“That was a great game. They’re tough to beat there because of the crowd and everything,” said Walt Harris, Pitt’s head coach from 1997-2004 who is now retired. “Rutherford made some throws to Larry that only Larry could make the catch, and he did.”

Despite falling behind by two touchdowns, Pitt rallied back with a pair of scores from Rutherford to wide receiver Fitzgerald in the left corner of the end zone, tying the game at 21.

“Fitz had one of those games where the ball just stuck to his hands,” Rutherford said. “I mean he had a crazy, crazy catch in the corner of the end zone … two of them actually.”

Rutherford threw for 208 yards and three touchdowns while adding 56 rushing yards in the 28-21 win, but instead of taking the credit, he deferred it to Fitzgerald and running back Brandon Miree –– whose 53-yard touchdown run with 4:11 left gave Pitt its first lead and sealed the win.

“It was just an unbelievable feeling to just go into that stadium and take the crowd out of the game in the second half,” Rutherford said. “There’s nothing better than going on the road and just dominating the second half of a ball game and taking the fans away.”

Nov. 8, 2003 — No. 25 Pitt 31, No. 5 Virginia Tech 28

The teams’ final meeting as Big East rivals came at Heinz Field in 2003, and again, the Hokies were a top-five team with hopes of making it back to the BCS Title Game. Pitt was also ranked this time at No. 25, but trailed 28-24 with just over four minutes left in the game.

“When you’re a quarterback and you’re in there on a last-minute drive to win the ball game, it’s like what you dream of,” Rutherford said. “It came to life for me that night.”

Rutherford and Fitzgerald hooked up for three catches for 49 yards to lead the Panthers down the field, setting them up for a third-and-goal from VT’s 2-yard line.

“From my perspective, I was not looking forward to calling a fourth-down call,” Harris said. “Bud Foster does a great job on defense.”

Luckily for Harris, he didn’t have to worry about fourth down. Rutherford handed the ball to running back Lousaka Polite, who bowled over an unblocked linebacker and into the end zone for the game-winning score.

“That was probably one of my most memorable moments at Pitt … we needed to get down the field to win the game,” Morgan said. “That’s the stuff you love because it’s all on your back. I remember telling them on that last drive, ‘I want the ball ran behind me.’ I think the linebacker ran right through the line actually, and Lousaka ran right through the guy.”

Morgan, Rutherford and Harris all plan to attend tomorrow night’s game against the Hokies, and all three are banking on a similar result to their past experiences.

Morgan’s spur-of-the-moment prediction is actually the same score as his last game against VT: 31-28, Pitt. Rutherford, on the other hand, thinks the Panthers will win by “13 or 14 points.”

As for the former head ball coach?

“I think the ol’ Panthers are going to pull it out,” Harris said. “I’m not a betting man, but if I were, that’s the way I’d go.”

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