PITTSBURGH — It was exactly 10 years ago Friday that the 10th-ranked Hurricanes came to bitter-cold Heinz Field to play for a share of the Big East championship in their final Big East game.
The wind whipped so hard that night — Heisman Trophy candidate Larry Fitzgerald’s last regular-season game as a Panthers receiver — that the 30-degree temperature felt like 20 with the wind-chill factor.
The Hurricanes stopped Fitzgerald in an overpowering defensive effort, winning the game and earning a berth in the Orange Bowl, their last BCS bowl.
On Friday, the Canes (8-3, 4-3 Atlantic Coast Conference) will again travel to Heinz Field for a regular-season finale against Pitt (6-5, 3-4), a new member of the ACC.
The stakes won’t be as big, but they’re still significant, as UM needs to win to stay in the race for the Coastal Division title that won’t be decided until Saturday.
The weather? As cold, if not colder.
Conditions for the 3:30 p.m. kickoff, to be televised nationally by ABC, are expected to be clear, with temperatures starting in the low 30s and dipping to about 22 at night. With the confluence of the three rivers at the open end of Heinz Field — those are the Allegheny, Ohio and Monongahela — the pre-winter blast could be daunting.
“More than a concern, it’s a challenge,” UM coach Al Golden said. “It’s a challenge to the way we want to operate, a challenge to our mindset. It’s a challenge to everything we want to be as a football program. We want to be a team that’s process-oriented, we want to be a team that blocks out everything externally. Certainly in this case the weather is one of those external challenges.”
Golden was asked how big an adjustment he’ll have to make offensively, given the forecast.
“We cannot allow an excuse mentality to creep in here because at the end of the day it’s going to come down to protecting the ball well and finding the running game against a great Pitt defensive front and connecting on the passes you throw,” Golden said. “We can’t have a lot of incomplete balls because it's cold or windy or whatever the case may be. We know there’s going to be elements that are going to be a challenge on Friday and we have to accept the challenge and execute regardless.”
Last year the Canes played in what they consider cold — 45 degrees at Duke in November and 44 against Notre Dame at Chicago’s Soldier Field in October. Miami won at Duke and lost to the Irish.
In December 2006 — Larry Coker’s final game as the Hurricanes coach — the Canes played in the MPC Computers Bowl on the blue turf of Bronco Stadium, where they practiced in Boise, Idaho’s 18-degree weather with a 9-degree wind-chill factor. Snow flurries floated down just before kickoff, but the Canes managed to squeak out the 21-20 victory.
The coldest game any of the current Hurricanes have experienced was the Sun Bowl — their last bowl game — on Dec. 31, 2010 in El Paso, Texas. UM lost to Notre Dame 33-17, the Sun Bowl Stadium field covered with snow and ice from a rare snowfall the previous night. It was 34 degrees at kickoff, but the temperatures dropped and it began to snow by the end.
Miami quarterback Stephen Morris, now a senior, replaced Jacory Harris in that game. Harris had thrown three interceptions, and the freshman Morris completed 22 of 33 passes for 282 yards and two fourth-quarter touchdowns, with one interception — and incoming coach Al Golden watching from a skybox.
Morris, who excelled that day in the cold despite a sprained ankle, said this week that he expects similar conditions against Pitt and won’t “let it be an excuse.”
Morris and his offensive line will be challenged significantly by Pitt star defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who leads the nation in tackles for loss, is 10th in sacks and 11th in forced fumbles.
“It’s a big game for us,” Morris said. “Definitely it will be cold, but we can’t let that bother us or deter us in any way. We’re just going to have to stay mentally focused.”
The Pitt game in 2003 was then documented as Miami’s third-coldest game since 1960. The other ones: Dec. 15, 1962 against Nebraska in New York City’s Gotham Bowl, and Dec. 16, 1961, against Syracuse in Philadelphia’s Liberty Bowl. The Canes lost both of those.
Pittsburgh will have hand-warmers and heaters by their bench, as likely will the Hurricanes.
“I’ve never played in weather like that,” UM cornerback Tracy Howard said with a grin after the Virginia game, adding later in the week that he’d love to play in the snow, since he’s never seen it. “I was born in Jackson Memorial Hospital. I don’t know anything about the cold.”
The Panthers do, though this will be the coldest weather of the season. Regardless, UM has won the past seven games in the series that began in 1950.
“The only time I coached in a warm climate was with the San Diego Chargers,” Pittsburgh coach Paul Chryst said. “Those guys were a little bit older and you didn’t hear much, so I don’t really know what other people think. Everyone tries to say this is your advantage or edge and I think it’s only if you make it that. I think it’s one of those things where after the game you can talk about it.
“It has nothing to do with playing.”