Phoenix The Pittsburgh Panthers are in the Insight Bowl for the second time in three years after a season that came tantalizingly close to being spectacular.
They will face Oregon State tonight in a rare Big East-Pac-10 matchup that features two teams with 8-4 records and two of the country's toughest defenses.
"It looks like a defensive struggle on paper," Oregon State coach Dennis Erickson said, "but you never know."
The 24th-ranked Panthers lost to Iowa State in the then-Insight.com Bowl 37-29 in the first football game played in Bank One Ballpark, the baseball home of the Arizona Diamondbacks in downtown Phoenix.
The ballpark will be the scene of this year's game, too, in a new Insight arrangement that replaces the Big 12 with a Pac-10 school. Oregon State enters the game with the No. 10 defense in the country, allowing 293.0 yards per game. Pittsburgh is No. 11 at 293.4 per contest.
"When I see Pitt's defense, I really see our defense," Beavers tailback Steven Jackson said. "They're both athletic. It's not just one guy tackling the ball carrier, they really swarm to the ball. They remind me of my team a lot."
Pittsburgh coach Walt Harris said it could be "one of the best matchups of all the bowls."
"The two teams are very similar, and the game means a lot to both programs," Panthers linebacker Brian Bieneke said. "We sure don't want to end the season with three straight losses, and a win will give Pittsburgh its first season with nine wins in 20 years."
The Panthers lost four games by a combined 24 points, including a 28-21 loss on the road to No. 1 Miami on Nov. 21. Pittsburgh drove to the Hurricanes' 20 in the final minute, but Rod Rutherford's fourth-down pass into the end zone was just out of Yogi Roth's reach.
"We've had some heartbreaks, but you know it was us. We've got to do a better job and finish those games better," Harris said. "It's a credit to our football players and our preparation to be close in those games. ... We're a good 8-4 football team. How good? I think this matchup will tell us a lot about that."
Pittsburgh's biggest concern will be stopping sophomore tailback Steven Jackson, the Pac-10's leading rusher by nearly 600 yards and No. 4 nationally with a school record 1,656 yards, an average of 5.5 yards per carry.