Panthers face Hurricanes in season’s final game Friday

By Nate Barnes | Sports Editor

Pitt football enters the week of Thanksgiving fresh off its 17-16 victory at Syracuse Saturday that qualified the Panthers for their fifth consecutive bowl-eligible season. This week, Pitt has a short week of preparation before the Miami Hurricanes visit Heinz Field Friday afternoon.

Pitt (6-5, 3-4 ACC) is bowl-eligible for the second time in head coach Paul Chryst’s second year, and the team is currently projected by many to receive an at-large bid to the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl Dec. 26 in Detroit, Mich. With one game remaining, the Panthers have the opportunity to earn a final conference win against Miami (8-3, 4-3 ACC) and snap up one of the conference’s lower-tier automatic bids.

“It’s kind of exciting,” Chryst said. “I think the kids are looking forward to turning around and playing this Friday.”

A win Friday would also give the Panthers their highest win total since the 2010 season, Dave Wannstedt’s final year as head coach, when Pitt capped an 8-5 season with a win in the BBVA Compass Bowl. Pitt finished 6-7 in the past two seasons.

The Panthers have some injury issues to contend with this week in the form of redshirt freshman tackle Adam Bisnowaty. Senior guard Cory King is also expected to stay on the mend for another week.

“He won’t go this week, we have him out for the season,” Chryst said. “He fought through a lot, we didn’t feel like once he got back on the field it was all better.”

At the left tackle slot, senior Juantez Hollins is expected to start Friday. Next to guard Ryan Schlieper, the left side of Pitt’s offensive line now consists of players who were not starters at the beginning of the season.

“Juantez is going to come up, and he stepped up,” Schlieper said. “He’s experienced, he knows exactly what he’s doing, he knows the plays, so that’s good to have.”

Chryst added that tight end Scott Orndoff and defensive end Ejuan Price remain inactive, while receiver Devin Street and linebacker Shane Gordon will be evaluated this week. Neither Street nor Gordon finished Saturday’s game.

Pitt needs all available weapons at its disposal this week against a fast Miami team. The Hurricanes are missing their leading rusher, Duke Johnson, who was lost for the year because of a broken ankle.

“Obviously, he was a really good player, a really good back,” Chryst said. “But also as you play different teams you don’t know exactly how they change.”

At the time of his injury, Johnson had racked up nearly 1,000 yards in just eight games, and he averaged 6.3 yards per carry with six touchdowns. Despite the loss of their most explosive offensive asset, Chryst still respects the capabilities of the talented Hurricanes offense.

“I think they still present all the same problems to us now,” Chryst said. “In the run game, certainly in the throw game, they’re explosive.”

With Johnson’s absence in the backfield, Dallas Crawford has stepped into the role of lead back. Crawford has carried 45 times for 207 yards and three touchdowns in his three starts since Johnson went down.

Next to Crawford, quarterback Stephen Morris leads Miami’s offense with 2,572 passing yards and 18 touchdowns against 12 interceptions. His primary target is senior wideout Allen Hurns, who has hauled in 51 passes for 965 yards and six scores this year.

“Receivers blow the top off the coverage. Their tight ends can run,” Chryst said. “Defensively, they fly around.”

For the Panthers to be able to keep pace with a speedy Miami team, Chryst stressed the importance of preparation in this short week to cut down on the team’s thinking time while on the field. In turn, the more quickly the Panthers act, the better they can keep up with a faster team.

“If you hesitate, that’s where I think the speed can get you,” Chryst said.

Friday’s game is also the final one at Heinz Field for players such as Street and defensive tackle Aaron Donald.

“There’s no pressure, we just know what we gotta do,” Donald said. “We ain’t comfortable, we still want to win. We still want to win this game Friday.”