No. 24 Pitt heads to Miami, tuning up for ACC title game
By TIM REYNOLDS, AP Sports Writer
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. (AP) — In the final Miami home game of the season, Hurricane fans will get to watch the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Coastal Division champions.
They just won’t be cheering for them.
Fortunes for Pitt and Miami have reversed in the last 12 months. The Panthers and Hurricanes are meeting in a regular-season finale for the second straight year — but this time, it’s No. 24 Pitt (7-4, 6-1, No. 24 College Football Playoff) that comes in already having clinched the Coastal and Miami (6-5, 3-4) enduring a year where its brief reign atop the division ended and tons of problems presented themselves.
Pitt has a date with Clemson for the ACC title next weekend, but the Panthers aren’t resting Saturday.
“We’re playing,” Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said. “There’s nobody not playing.”
Miami can’t say the same.
Jeff Thomas — the Hurricanes’ best receiver and returner, a speedster and one of the few bright spots in an offense that has sputtered often this season — won’t be playing this weekend, or ever again for Miami. The Hurricanes say he was dismissed from the team; Thomas insists that’s not the case and that it was a mutual decision. Either way, he’s gone.
“We’ve tried to build a team that is united,” said Miami coach Mark Richt, whose club snapped a four-game slide with a win at Virginia Tech last weekend. “Usually, when you go through hard times, it reveals whether you have unity or you don’t. … You figure out if you’re strong or not.”
These two teams epitomize what the Coastal is about this year. Pitt had zero first-place votes in the league’s preseason poll. Miami was the overwhelming preseason pick. The Panthers wound up winning the division, with their only ACC loss so far coming to North Carolina — the team that will finish last in the Coastal.
“Anybody can beat anybody,” Narduzzi said. “It’s very, very competitive, and that’s the way you want it. But it’s a great conference, and it’s a great division from top to bottom.”
Miami can’t pinpoint one reason why its season went awry. Neither can Narduzzi.
“I’d take a lot of their players,” he said.
Some other things to watch when Miami plays host to No. 24 Pittsburgh on Saturday:
Miami will pay tribute to 26 seniors before the game. Among the notables: likely All-American defensive tackle Gerald Willis III, center Tyler Gauthier, quarterback Malik Rosier and three starters in one of the nation’s best secondaries — cornerback Michael Jackson and safeties Jaquan Johnson and Sheldrick Redwine.
Pittsburgh’s offensive line took a hit last week. The Panthers won’t have center Jimmy Morrissey (ankle) for the remainder of the season; he was injured against Wake Forest. Left guard Connor Dintino takes Morrissey’s spot, and Bryce Hargrove moves into Dintino’s role. “We still have the same plays,” Dintino said. Miami is without tight ends Will Mallory and Brevin Jordan, leaving the Hurricanes no scholarship players at that spot.
It might not be by design, but the Hurricanes have been perfectly balanced between the run and the pass this season. Miami comes into Saturday with 2,075 yards rushing and 2,075 yards passing.
BACK TO FLORIDA
Pitt is back in Florida for the second time this season. The Panthers lost to UCF 45-14 back on Sept. 29. It’s the first time Pitt has played twice in Florida in the same year since 2014, when it swept FIU and Miami.
Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett got his first career start last season against Miami, and led the Panthers to a 24-14 upset of the then-No. 2 and unbeaten Hurricanes. That game started a run where Miami has dropped eight of 14 contests. And Pickett is coming into this game with some momentum, thanks to his 316 yards and three scores last week against Wake Forest.
AP Sports Writer Will Graves contributed.
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