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Pitt perseveres through adversity

Jim Johnson

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From the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:

Pitt perseveres through adversity

By Joe Starkey


Monday, November 10, 2003

Nine games into the season, Pitt finds itself in precisely the same spot it was last season.

Which is to say, 4-0 in the Big East, riding the high of emotional victory over Virginia Tech and facing a three-game finishing act against West Virginia, Temple and Miami.

Last year, the Panthers lost two of those final three games.

No matter what happens this year, Pitt coach Walt Harris believes he has a special team.

"You don't know the price these guys have paid," he said, minutes after the gun sounded Saturday on Pitt's stirring, 31-28 victory over Virginia Tech.

The victory lifted Pitt nine spots in the Associated Press Top 25 Poll, to No. 16.

It also kept the Panthers alone in first place in the Big East heading into its showdown at 7 p.m. Saturday in Morgantown, W. Va.

Raise your hand if you thought Pitt (7-2) would be in this position after dreadful losses to Toledo and Notre Dame dropped its record to 3-2.

Oh no you didn't.

"I'm just very thankful our players kept believing when things looked awfully bleak," Harris said. "Our coaches have hung together and kept it positive during rough times."

Like when Pitt trailed 28-24 on Saturday with the clock running low and the Hokies driving.

"We had some big-time adversity," Harris said.

What else is new? The Panthers have absorbed more body blows than a beat-up Chevy, but they keep coming back for more.

With about 5 minutes left, a defense that had been torn asunder by Hokies tailback Kevin Jones lined up for a 3rd-and-5 at its 31 as if nothing bad had happened.

Defensive end Thomas Smith implored the sellout crowd of 66,207 to cheer louder. A gang of Panthers slammed into Jones and pushed him back after a 1-yard gain.

On fourth-and-4, the Hokies went for the kill, a pass from quarterback Marcus Vick to split end Justin Hamilton, who couldn't make the catch against the tight coverage of Pitt senior William "TuTu" Ferguson -- a guy who'd been relegated to back-up duty the first part of the season.

Ferguson personifies a Pitt defense that doesn't know when to quit. It gave up 455 yards but produced four turnovers and -- unlike in the Notre Dame game -- gave the offense a chance to win at the end.

"We gave up two touchdowns on three plays (to make it 28-24, Virginia Tech, early in the fourth quarter) and every easily could have hung our heads to the end of the game," said defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads, who also said the week of preparation was the best he'd seen in four years at Pitt. "But they responded and came back, and the result was a great team victory."

Nose tackle Vince Crochunis said Rhoads was "really angry" after Pitt surrendered those two quick TDs -- including Jones's 80-yard run -- and ordered his players to maintain their focus.

Like Harris, Rhoads was emotional afterward.

"They know they need each other," he said of his defensive players. "They're talking about accountability and investing, and when the kids are doing that, you're going to have great results."

Quarterback Rod Rutherford, no stranger to overcoming adversity, engineered a brilliant final drive, something he could not do in losses last season against Notre Dame, Miami and West Virginia.

"He grew up during this game," Harris said.

If anything, bad breaks only seem to steel this team's resolve. That in mind, it was fitting that fifth-year, reserve safety Corey Humphries made the final big play.

Humphries had been lit up on a block by Vick -- the quarterback -- earlier in the fourth quarter but came back to make the game-clinching interception with 17 seconds left.

That's when the celebration started.

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The VaTach game was great to watch.

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