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Pittsburgh can prove itself by beating UM

For some Pittsburgh players, emotions will run high tonight at the Orange Bowl.

It's not that they are playing the top-ranked team or that the 17th-ranked Panthers (8-2, 5-0) have a chance to end Miami's 31-game winning streak and earn at least a tie for its first Big East championship.

This game means more for the nine players on Pitt's roster who hail from the Sunshine State. It's about bragging rights, trash talking and pride.

"I'm just so psyched up to go down there, especially with how our team is playing football," said senior cornerback Torrie Cox, a graduate of Miami Northwestern. "I'm amped."

He's not the only one. Pitt's surprising-to-some season can go from good to great if it upsets the 'Canes (9-0, 4-0).

"We have a lot riding on this, and it is definitely the biggest game on the schedule," said defensive end Claude Harriott, who is from Belle Glade.

Pittsburgh was a dying program when Walt Harris was named coach in December 1996. It had little talent, less interest and was long past the glory days when Dan Marino took the snaps and had Pitt ranked in the Top 10. Progress has been steady. Moving into Heinz Field, the home of the NFL Steelers, helped get fans into the stands. But winning was more difficult, and many thought Harris had to do it this season to save his job.

For the most part, critics have been silenced because the Panthers arguably could be undefeated now.

"This is a new experience for the University of Pittsburgh," Harris said. "We have a chance to win a championship, and that's been our goal since we got here. We came here (six) years ago and climbed a mountain to try and get the football program squared away. It has been a steep mountain and slick too. But we're up that mountain. I don't know how high, but we're up a little higher than we used to be."

And that should make the Hurricanes wary.

"They lost a very close game to Texas A&M that they could have won," Miami coach Larry Coker said. "They lost a very close game to Notre Dame, and they actually outgained Notre Dame almost four-to-one in yardage. They have an excellent offense, and they're playing great defense. That's the difference in their football team. It's going to be a challenge because they stop the run well, and we've been running it well."

Cox, who was a star running back on an undefeated Class 6A championship team at Northwestern High, said he and his teammates are up for the challenge. He has (almost) guaranteed a Pittsburgh victory.

"We need to go down there and just play Pittsburgh football," Cox said. "If we go down there and play that kind of football, we're coming out with a victory. I'm not saying we've got a chance _ we're coming out with a victory if we play our football."

Although Miami fullback Quadtrine Hill and Pitt receiver Roosevelt Bynes, who were teammates at Piper High in Sunrise, have had some playful phone conversations this week, the 'Canes are heaping praise on Pitt.

"They're playing some of the best football in the nation," defensive tackle Matt Walters said. "They had a big win against Virginia Tech. They have a lot of confidence coming into this game. Last year, they played well. They were probably the most physical team we played, and they know that too. I think they're coming in here with the mentality that they're going to win _ they're going to beat us in our home."

"Ever since my freshman year, I remember playing against Pittsburgh, those guys always hit hard," center Brett Romberg said. "After that game, every year, I come home with a headache. They've out-toughed a lot of teams."

Miami hasn't lost at home since Sept. 18, 1999, when Penn State won 27-23. The Panthers are 0-10-1 against No. 1 teams and haven't beaten UM since 1997. That hasn't stopped Cox _ who has 66 tackles, two interceptions, 12 pass breakups and averages 24.7 yards on kickoffs _ from saying it's possible.

"I think we're going to pull this one out," Cox said. "I have a gut feeling. There's just something special about our team this year."

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