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OSU-Pittsburgh could be among top bowl games

The Insight Bowl matches two of the nation's best defenses

First, a weather report from the Valley of the Sun, courtesy of Oregon State tailback Steven Jackson after Sunday's practice session:

'Pretty chilly. Somewhere in the 30s or 40s. A little bit of a shocker.'

Phoenix's high temperatures actually have been in the 50s, and things are supposed to improve as the week goes on, but Jackson's point is well-taken.

Any heat generated in Arizona has to come from the Beavers or the Pittsburgh Panthers, who lock horns in Thursday's Insight Bowl at Bank One Ballpark.

The intensity should be considerable. The 24th-ranked Panthers are 8-4, as are the Beavers, and oddsmakers predict that this will be one of the most competitive of the 28 Division I bowl games.

After watching videotape of Pittsburgh, Jackson feels that way, too.

'Their defense is outstanding,' says the 6-1, 230-pound sophomore from Las Vegas, the Pacific-10 Conference rushing leader this season. 'They are pretty big and real fast, and they run to the ball.'

Not that Jackson isn't impressed with Oregon State's defense. The Beavers rank 10th in the nation in total defense. Pittsburgh is 11th.

OSU coach Dennis Erickson says the Panthers' flex defense reminds him of Southern Cal, which shut out the Beavers 22-0.

But Oregon State's offense came together in the final month of the regular season, averaging nearly 36 points a game. The offensive line protected quarterback Derek Anderson, opened holes for Jackson and turned the Beavers into a bona fide threat on both sides of the ball.

Pittsburgh has a balanced two-back offense led by quarterback Rod Rutherford, a 6-foot-3, 220-pound junior who passed for 2,600 yards and 21 touchdowns and ran for 712 yards Ð 412 net.

'They run some option,' Erickson says, 'and he is a good scrambler.'

Brandon Miree, a 6-3, 235-pound junior, is the leading rusher with 830 yards. Pitt's biggest weapon outside of Rutherford, though, is Larry Fitzgerald, the Big East's Rookie of the Year and the first freshman in history to be a unanimous choice as an all-conference receiver. The 6-3, 215-pound Fitzgerald caught 64 passes for 917 yards and 11 TDs.

Oregon State rarely flops its cornerbacks, so Fitzgerald will be covered by both Terrell Roberts and Dennis Weathersby. Weathersby is likely to get more one-on-one action against Pitt's prize target.

Weathersby 'is going to test me,' Fitzgerald told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. 'The guy is big-time. I will have to be ready.'

Erickson is 5-4 in bowl appearances. Thursday's game is a reward for his team, but the veteran coach is emphasizing the importance of victory.

'It's a chance for our ninth win and to finish in the top 25 in the country, which is a pretty good accomplishment,' he says.

Jackson says the Beavers won't be content with just making the Insight Bowl.

'It's really important to win,' he says. 'We want to cap the season off the right way. It's big for our recruits to see us win a bowl game, and a win would give us the right attitude going into spring practice.

'This is my first bowl game, and I'm pretty excited. Playing in a bowl is the biggest thing about college football. It's another level of the game I get to experience. That's pretty special.'

NOTES: You remember Pittsburgh as the school of Tony Dorsett and Dan Marino, and the Panthers were a powerhouse in those days, going to nine straight bowl games from 1975-83. But they fell on hard times, and the picture wasn't pretty when coach Walt Harris took over in 1997. The Panthers went 2-9 and 5-6 in 1998 and '99, then turned it around and will participate in their third straight bowl game Thursday. É This is the first meeting between Pittsburgh and OSU. The Panthers are 22-22 against Pac-10 teams, having played each of the other nine schools at least once (they're 2-2 against Oregon). They are 2-4 against the Pac-10 in bowl games. É Bank One Ballpark, the home of the Arizona Diamondbacks, holds nearly 43,000 for football. Oregon State had sold about 6,100 tickets by last Friday, but estimates are that between 10,000 and 15,000 OSU fans will attend the game. É Oregon State brought 105 players to Phoenix, including redshirts and walk-ons. 'That is one of the most fun things about going to a bowl, in my opinion,' Erickson says. 'Those guys work as hard as anybody, and this makes it worth their while a little bit.' É Erickson says at least two-thirds of his players have some family in town for Christmas and to attend the game. The Beavers will have a dinner tonight for players and family members. É Pitt Athletic Director Steve Pederson resigned Friday to accept the same job at Nebraska, and Harris has spent the last week dealing with rumors about leaving to fill openings at other schools.