Pittsburgh 34, N.C. State 19

Friday, December 21st 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) _ Antonio Bryant had enough moxie to convince coach Walt Harris he could play hurt, then enough talent to lead Pittsburgh to a 34-19 victory over North Carolina State in the Tangerine Bowl.

Bryant, a question mark heading into the game with a bad right ankle, caught two touchdown passes as the Panthers closed out a remarkable turnaround season Thursday night.

``I probably was 80 percent and he will probably tell you I was 65 percent,'' Bryant said. ``In the first half I said, `Coach, we are going to be able to surprise them because they are looking for me to be hobbling around.' I just pushed through the pain because I didn't want them to see me limp.''

Bryant, the game's MVP, wasn't the only star for the Panthers (7-5) in their sixth straight victory.

David Priestley, who had 13 TD passes and one interception during Pitt's winning streak, threw for 271 yards. And Pitt's defense, which had allowed a combined 37 points in its previous five games, came up big after N.C. State (7-5) closed to 27-19.

Lewis Moore sacked Philip Rivers and forced a fumble that was returned 16 yards by Tyre Young for a score with 6:15 left to clinch it for the Panthers.

Pittsburgh began 1-5, but came back with the program's longest winning streak since 1983.

``I don't know if it's good to compare my teams, but this is a pretty good football team right now,'' Harris said. ``The thing that I respect the most is they were ready to play. We have something special going on in that locker room.''

Bryant had all seven catches for 101 yards in the first half as the Panthers built a working margin.

``Thank goodness he had a bad ankle or he would have really embarrassed us out there,'' N.C. State coach Chuck Amato said.

Harris earned his first bowl win in three tries in his five seasons with Pitt. The Panthers got their first postseason victory since beating Texas A&M in the John Hancock Bowl 12 years ago.

Bryant hurt his ankle in the regular-season finale against Alabama-Birmingham on Dec. 1, and wasn't at 100 percent since arriving in Florida on Monday.

But the 2000 All-American and two-time Big East wide receiver was on his game early. He caught TDs of 15 and 2 yards as the Panthers went up 24-10 at halftime.

It was the sixth straight game in which Bryant caught at least one touchdown pass.

``The physical performance is what we've grown to expect and enjoy,'' Harris said of Bryant. ``The mental performance is what makes him special. He has a passion for the game. He has gone the hard road and he knows that the people here at Pitt really care about him and that's why he gave it up for his team and his coaching staff.''

Meanwhile, N.C. State wasn't the same team on defense after losing Associated Press first team All-American linebacker Levar Fisher early in the second quarter to a broken left forearm.

The teams traded field goals in a closely played first quarter before the Panthers took control in the second, scoring on drives of 80, 98 and 70 yards.

Without Fisher in the lineup, Pittsburgh was able to establish a running game and a short passing attack to help open up room deep for Bryant.

Pittsburgh took the lead for good with 10:17 left in the second quarter when Priestley completed a 32-yard screen pass to Marcus Furman and a 22-yard swing pass to Raymond Kirkley before Bryant beat Wolfpack safety Julius Patterson on a 15-yard TD.

A 49-yard completion to Bryant sparked Pitt's next long march. Priestley also found Bryant for 16 yards on a third-and-11 play and capped the drive with a 2-yard scoring pass to his star receiver for a 17-3 lead.

``He was their go-to guy and they were going to go to him,'' Amato said of Bryant.

N.C. State stunned the Panthers on the ensuing kickoff when Gregory Golden ran it back 90 yards.

The Wolfpack was called for roughing the punter to keep Pitt's final scoring drive of the half alive. Three plays after the penalty, Lousaka Polite ran 35 yards to the 1, and Rod Rutherford scored on a keeper.