Style points no longer matter, just victories. The Hurricanes are well aware of that today, having survived a scare Thursday night against Pittsburgh, getting a win that wasn't pretty but nonetheless kept them headed toward Arizona and the national championship game.
The 28-21 victory wasn't secure until Pitt quarterback Rod Rutherford's fourth-down pass in the waning seconds just missed an open Yogi Roth, who dived in vain in the end zone and came up empty, denying the Panthers a touchdown that would have sent the game to overtime.
Instead, the 64,897 at the Orange Bowl could breath easy as the No. 1-ranked Hurricanes improved to 10-0.
"There's an understanding that our goal is in sight," said UM quarterback Ken Dorsey, whose 30-yard touchdown to Andre Johnson early in the third quarter gave UM a lead it never relinquished. "No team is going to give it to us. We saw that last year. No team is going to come and just hand us a win. We have to come out each and every game ready for a dogfight. That's what we're going to get."
The Hurricanes got it, and it's a good thing their Heisman Trophy candidates stepped up when it counted.
Tailback Willis McGahee spurred the Hurricanes with a 69-yard touchdown run toward the end of the first half that tied it. Then Dorsey, who may have played his worst half in the first half, got hot in the third quarter, directing a quick scoring drive.
When McGahee added a 7-yard touchdown run early in the fourth, the Hurricanes seemingly had the game in hand. But Rutherford directed an eight-play, 73-yard scoring drive, running in from 3 yards to pull the Panthers within 28-21 with 4:37 remaining.
When the Hurricanes couldn't get a first down, Pitt had one last chance, driving to the UM 20.
"It's an outstanding win for us; they all are when you win," UM coach Larry Coker said. "It was about like we thought. Pitt's a very good football team. They are well-coached, had a good plan. They played it to the end. They never gave up."
The Hurricanes improved to 6-0 in the Big East while extending their winning streak to 32. With games remaining against Syracuse (Nov. 30) and Virginia Tech (Dec. 7), UM is in command of the conference and its automatic Bowl Championship Series spot.
More importantly to the Hurricanes, the victory kept them in position to defend their national championship in the Jan. 3 Fiesta Bowl.
"The offensive line has always had a chant: "Big East, big bowl, big money,' " UM center Brett Romberg said. "Believe me, we know how important this game is."
Yet the Hurricanes didn't appear to take the same intensity into the game as they had at Tennessee on Nov. 9, when they spanked the Volunteers 26-3 to reassert their dominance and regain the top spot in both major polls.
Perhaps it had something to do with Pittsburgh, ranked 17th and 8-2 for the first time in 20 years.
The Panthers knocked off then-No. 3 Virginia Tech on Nov. 2 and had won 14 of 16. They had won nine straight Big East games, their only defeats to Notre Dame and Texas A&M. All of a sudden, this national game on ESPN was big _ for both schools.
"I thought it was a tremendous battle," Pitt coach Walt Harris said. "Our football team played hard, played with great enthusiasm and fought them the whole way, but we didn't do enough things right. We gave them a championship-type effort and we were very close to getting it done."
The game couldn't have started any better for the Hurricanes, who forced a punt that Roscoe Parrish fielded at the UM 26. Parrish took a few steps to his right and handed off to Sean Taylor, who went the opposite direction, weaving and waiting for his blocks. Taylor was barely touched as he cruised to the end zone for a 7-0 UM lead fewer than four minutes into the game.
After that, UM's first-half offense was mostly offensive. Dorsey was 5-of-15 for 13 yards. An interception on UM's first offensive series led to a Pitt touchdown, a 5-yard pass from Rutherford to Larry Fitzgerald that tied it at 7.
From there, the Hurricanes had four consecutive possessions where they failed to convert on third down, the last ending in 54-yard field-goal attempt by Todd Sievers that went wide with 6:48 remaining in the half.
"Some of it goes to Pittsburgh and how great their defense was, and some of it goes to us," said Dorsey, who was 14-of-26 for 163 yards.
A partially blocked UM punt led to a 30-yard touchdown drive, Rutherford hitting Roosevelt Bynes with a 4-yard pass for a 14-7 lead with 2:28 left in the half.
The situation looked bleak for the Hurricanes, who had the ball for 9:32 in the first half, converted 0 of 5 third downs and amassed 138 yards.
Yet all it took was one play to tie it, a slick 69-yard run by McGahee, who twice changed directions after running into teammates but sprinted to the end zone to tie it at 14 with 2:06 left in the half.
"I felt that ignited things for the team," said McGahee, who finished with 159 yards on 19 carries. "It got us going."