PHOENIX — A sea of orange descended upon Bank One Ballpark for the Insight Bowl between Pitt and Oregon State on Saturday night.
Fluorescent sweatshirts where everywhere among the near-capacity crowd at the 42,915-seat venue, most of whom wore paraphernalia emblazoned with the words, “Oregon State Beavers” in bold letters for everyone to see.
The Oregon State fans outnumbered Pitt fans by nearly 4-to-1, as their boisterous cheers drowned out the contingent of about 3,000 Panthers followers who came here to witness this Big East-Pac-10 showdown.
Pitt sold in the neighborhood of 3,000 tickets for last night’s game, which was 7,000 fewer than they were required to purchase at $52 apiece. The university donated some of the tickets to charities, though it still took a big hit in sales, considering it paid $520,000 for seats and sold about $156,000 worth.
It didn’t take long to gain an understanding of which school had the bigger fan contingent at the baseball-turned-football-field known as “The Bob.” A local radio announcer stood at midfield 30 minutes prior to kickoff and asked, “Are there any Oregon State fans in the house?”
The place went berserk, with raucous cheers for the Beavers.
He then asked if there were any Pitt fans in the stands. The question was met with boos that drowned out the attempted hoots and hollers from the Panthers partisans.
As if Pitt freshman Larry Fitzgerald didn’t do enough in the regular season by breaking school freshman records in catches (64), yards (917) and touchdowns (11), he might have outdone himself last night on the game’s first touchdown.
Fitzgerald beat Oregon State’s Mitch Meeuwsen deep down the sideline and pulled in a pass that will surely make some season-ending top 10 lists.
The Minneapolis native stretched out as far as he possibly could and pulled in a 40-yard touchdown on his fingertips as he was airborne heading into the end zone. The catch brought back memories of Antonio Bryant’s diving touchdown grab through the middle at the 2000 Insight Bowl.
On the topic of Bryant, Fitzgerald caught a touchdown pass in his sixth consecutive game, tying Bryant’s school mark.
HE’S MY MAN
Pitt coach Walt Harris, who is not one to give high praise to his quarterbacks, lauded the efforts of junior Rod Rutherford when asked about the Perry Traditional Academy graduate by a scribe from Oregon.
Rutherford completed 52.5 percent of his passes in the regular season for 2,600 yards with 21 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He led the Panthers to an 8-4 regular-season record in his first year as a starter.
“He deserves a tremendous amount of credit,” said Harris. “He’s been doubted by a lot of people in our community. His first act as a college football player was a short catch that he turned into a long touchdown (as a freshman). After that, everyone thought he should be a receiver, and when he threw for 31 percent (as a sophomore), everyone was more convinced. It was definitely a challenge for a young man in his hometown.
“But he hung in there. People were yelling during a game for (freshman backup) Tyler Palko and that had to be hard on Rod. … Now look at him. He was named second-team All-Big East behind a Heisman Trophy finalist (in Miami’s Ken Dorsey) and will try to be a first-teamer next year. That young man has come a long way.”
There was speculation that the roof at Bank One Ballpark would be closed for last night’s game due to weather, but game-time temperature was about 55 degrees and the roof remained open.
Earlier in the week, temperatures in the Valley of the Sun dipped to the low 40s, and rain fell intermittently. But when the game kicked off at 8:37 p.m. EST, the air was clear and there was no need for cover.
Last night’s game not only concluded the careers of the Pitt seniors, it also closed out team manager Chris Slovack’s tenure with the team. For those who haven’t seen him, he’s the kid who sprints out to the center of the field and grabs the tee after kickoffs. He then goes full speed back to the sideline, sometimes diving head-first and then slamming the tee to the ground. Known as “Farley” for his physical similarities to deceased comedian Chris Farley, Slovack has long been the most animated member of the Pitt program. …. The largest crowd to attend the Insight Bowl before last night was the 2000 Pitt-Iowa game (41,813).