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PREDICTION: Panthers to rebound with rare win vs. Miami

Pitt RB James Conner (24) announced Saturday that he will forgot his senior season and declare for the 2017 NFL Draft. Jeff Ahearn | Senior Staff Photographer

Pitt RB James Conner (24) announced Saturday that he will forgot his senior season and declare for the 2017 NFL Draft. Jeff Ahearn | Senior Staff Photographer

Pitt RB James Conner (24) announced Saturday that he will forgot his senior season and declare for the 2017 NFL Draft. Jeff Ahearn | Senior Staff Photographer

By Steve Rotstein | Sports Editor

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Though there are still four games left in the regular season, the Pitt Panthers and the free-falling Miami Hurricanes –– a team that’s lost its last four games in a row –– will collide in Miami in a must-win battle for both teams on Saturday.

The Panthers will enter the 12:30 p.m. matchup coming off their first home loss of the season, a 39-36 defeat against Virginia Tech that seriously damaged the team’s division title chances. Meanwhile, after a 4-0 start earned Miami a top-10 national ranking this season, the Hurricanes have lost four games in a row and sit in fifth place in the Coastal Division with a 1-3 ACC record.

Still, both teams were tabbed as division title contenders before the season for a reason. Here are the keys to watch for in the critical conference showdown:

Reversing the trend

The Panthers’ series with Miami has produced plenty of marquee matchups over the last 20 years, although the results have been extremely one-sided.

Pitt ended an eight-game losing streak against the Hurricanes with a 35-23 win at Miami in 2014. But the Hurricanes came back to Heinz Field last year and defeated the Panthers in the regular season finale, 29-24, and have won nine of the last 10 games in the series.

The Hurricanes appeared to be returning to prominence under first-year head coach Mark Richt, then fell into a downward spiral the last four weeks. But Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi attributes the team’s losing streak to the strength of its schedule more than anything.

Miami has lost by one point vs. Florida State, seven points vs. North Carolina, 21 points at Virginia Tech and three points at Notre Dame –– all of which are ranked in the top 25 or have been at some point this season.

“People can talk about a four-game skid. There’s a lot of people in the country that will be in a four-game skid when they play those folks,” Narduzzi said Monday at his weekly press conference.

Miami is still a dangerous team, one that has owned the series between the former Big East and now ACC rivals for the better part of the 21st century. Pitt will need to turn the rivalry around to keep any hopes alive of winning the Coastal Division.

Can the secondary stop Kaaya?

If it’s balance you’re looking for, Pitt’s defense isn’t the place to find it.

The Panthers have excelled at stopping the run this season, ranking No. 6 in the country with 103.8 rushing yards allowed per game. But opposing quarterbacks have made them pay in the passing game, as Pitt ranks No. 125 out of 128 FBS teams with 312.3 passing yards allowed per game.

The Panthers have already faced plenty of talented quarterbacks throughout the year, and it won’t get any easier this week against Miami’s Brad Kaaya, an NFL-ready junior who was projected as the No. 2 overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft before the season.

The 6-foot-4, 215-pound quarterback’s draft stock has fallen during the Hurricanes’ four-game skid, but Kaaya has still had a solid season to date, completing 61.8 percent of his passes for 1,984 yards, 13 touchdowns and six interceptions.

Junior cornerback Avonte Maddox is listed as doubtful on Pitt’s injury report, while redshirt sophomore Phillipie Motley is out. Whoever is in at cornerback for the Panthers will likely have a tough time against Kaaya and Miami receivers Ahmmon Richards and Stacy Coley.

“We’ll have our work cut out for us when we head down to Miami for Saturday’s game, and they’ve got plenty of speed and athleticism,” Narduzzi said. “We expect to get a lot of shots deep on our defense, and we’ve been working on that all week.”

Feed the beast

After Pitt running back James Conner rushed for 141 yards and three touchdowns on just 19 carries against Virginia Tech last week, Narduzzi gushed about the star redshirt junior’s performance.

“He’s a beast. He’s a weapon, and they couldn’t take him away,” Narduzzi said at his postgame press conference. “I wish we would have given the ball to him 15 more times.”

At his weekly media teleconference, Narduzzi said Conner has been practicing at a higher speed now than he was at the start of the season, and is only getting better after recovering from a torn MCL and Hodgkin’s lymphoma in the past year.

Speaking at his media teleconference, Richt had high praise for Conner’s skill set, as well as the heart and fight he’s shown this year.

“A bruiser, physical, tough, experienced, loves the game, loves life, obviously, after –– especially after what he went through,” Richt said. “Just a great story of faith and perseverance and toughness, physical and mental toughness, and now he’s healthy and pounding people.”

Conner has rushed for 672 yards and 10 touchdowns in eight games this season, but has yet to receive 25 carries in a game. Now might be the time for the Panthers to start giving him a full workload if he’s finally back to full strength.

PREDICTION: The 5-3 Panthers and 4-4 Hurricanes are evenly matched teams who haven’t quite stacked up against the top teams in the ACC, one of the strongest conferences in college football. The Panthers are hungry for a win after last week’s loss, while Miami is desperate to end its 4-game losing streak. A steady dose of Conner running behind Pitt’s stacked offensive line will wear Miami’s defense out and keep the Hurricanes in a tailspin.

Pitt 34, Miami 31

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PREDICTION: Panthers to rebound with rare win vs. Miami