Miami 28, Pittsburgh 21

Anyone who went to bed at halftime of the University of Miami's 28-21 victory over Pittsburgh tonight might have aptly described the top-ranked Hurricanes as unimpressive, Miami quarterback and Heisman Trophy candidate Ken Dorsey as overrated and the game as painfully dull.

But viewers who caught the second half likely retired with a different impression. Dorsey appeared transformed, leading the Hurricanes -- once again -- out of a jam few figured they would find themselves. And the No. 17 Panthers made the hearts of the more 60,000 fans at the Orange Bowl race until the game's last minute, when their hopes of upsetting Miami expired only with an overthrown fourth-down pass by quarterback Rod Rutherford in the back of the end zone.

By the time Dorsey, Miami's most prominent Heisman Trophy candidate, knelt at his 20-yard line on the game's final play, the Hurricanes (10-0, 5-0 Big East) had restored order to their championship world, recapturing at least some of the respect that seemed to disintegrate, minute by minute, during an excruciating first half. The Panthers (8-3, 5-1), meantime, had to settle for knowing they scared Miami half to death and came close yet again.

"They played until the end," Miami Coach Larry Coker said. "They never gave up, obviously. My hat goes off to our football team, too. We struggled in the first half offensively. . . . We weren't making plays. We were just out of sync . . . [but] they got settled down and had a good second half."

The final numbers did not befit a national champion, which is what Miami hopes to become for the second straight year, but the Hurricanes were relieved to leave the stadium with even an ugly victory during a season in which undefeated teams have repeatedly fallen.

The Hurricanes managed just 13 first downs; Pitt collected 26. Miami was outgained 343-315. Miami survived on a diet of big plays: a punt returned for a touchdown, a 69-yard touchdown run by Willis McGahee, a key fumble recovery, six sacks and several huge completions.

"We did our job," said Sean Taylor, who returned a punt 78 yards for a score on Miami's first possession. "We fought hard down to the last 20 seconds. . . . We had it under control, let it get away a little bit, but got it back in the end."

Pitt, whose three losses have come by a combined 17 points, never relented, even after falling behind by two touchdowns early in the fourth quarter. As the crowd watched in horror, Rutherford sneaked into the end zone from three yards with 3 minutes 24 seconds remaining, bringing Pitt to within seven.

After Miami failed to advance on its next possession, Pitt got the ball back and, with considerable help from a trio of Hurricanes' penalties, marched downfield. But on fourth and five from Miami's 20, with the clock ticking under 30 seconds, Rutherford missed Yogi Roth in the back of the end zone.

"It was a tough game to lose," Pittsburgh Coach Walt Harris said. "We're not into moral victories. These guys are too serious about football to be excited about getting it close."

Dorsey, who finished with 163 yards on 14-of-26 passing, went from hopelessly inept in the first half to commanding and precise in the second, helping his staggering team unlock the 14-14 halftime tie with two lovely, arching passes to wide receiver Andre Johnson -- one a 30-yard touchdown -- and an assortment of darts into his receivers' chests. Miami's defense, meantime, provided big plays at key times, even though the Hurricanes never managed to end Pitt's hopes.

As the Panthers survived on the scrambling of Rutherford and the hard-nosed running of Brandon Miree (118 yards on 26 carries), McGahee proved a steadying force for Miami, finishing with 159 yards on 19 carries and two touchdowns. Miami took a 28-14 lead on McGahee's second score, a seven-yard run that capped a drive that included 19- and 39-yard completions by Dorsey.

During the first half, the Hurricanes gave their fans about 30 seconds of excitement and more than 29 minutes of stultifying play. In between Taylor's punt return and McGahee's 69-yard sprint on Miami's last possession, the Hurricanes did almost nothing offensively other than frustrate Coker and inspire Pitt's defense.

Dorsey hit just 5 of 15 first-half passes for 13 yards. He threw over, under and around his receivers, and once into the hands of linebacker Brian Beinecke.

A 19-yard completion on Dorsey's first attempt of the second half surpassed his productivity for the entire first. Three plays later, he unleashed a 30-yard pass to Johnson, giving Miami the lead two minutes into the period. On the drive, Dorsey completed all three pass attempts for 58 yards.

"We know we're tough to hold down an entire game," Dorsey said. "I wasn't panicked. I was very confident in this offense."

Willis McGahee (2) celebrates fourth-quarter touchdown run that gave top-ranked Miami a 28-14 lead over Pitt. McGahee finished with 159 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries.