Dec. 18, 2008

(AP) - LeSean McCoy ran for more yards than any freshman running back in the nation last season, but it wasn't enough to lead Pittsburgh to a bowl game. Jacquizz Rodgers took McCoy's mantle as college football's top first-year rusher in 2008, but he wasn't around to get Oregon State to the bowl it was so desperately seeking.

An injury kept Rodgers from the 24th-ranked Beavers' regular-season finale, but they'll hope to have their star tailback on the field on Dec. 31 in the Sun Bowl at El Paso, Texas, to battle McCoy and the No. 18 Panthers.

McCoy set a Big East freshman record by running for 1,328 yards last season, but with an inconsistent passing attack and a shaky defense, Pitt spent the holidays at home for the third time in as many years under coach Dave Wannstedt.

Two young and talented running backs look to carry their team to a bowl victory on New Year's Eve.

Though it was another disappointing season in the Steel City, it ended on an overwhelmingly positive note. The Panthers upset arch-rival West Virginia in their regular-season finale, using 148 yards from McCoy to propel them to a 13-9 win that kept the Mountaineers from wrapping up a spot in the national championship game.

McCoy improved as a sophomore, running for 1,403 yards and 21 touchdowns - tied for the second-most in the nation - and he elevated the team around him. He ran for at least 142 yards in five straight games, including a 156-yard, three-touchdown performance against Navy on Oct. 18, capping a five-game streak for Pitt (9-3).

"That guy is good. He is going to be playing on Sundays," Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo said of McCoy. "Don't be surprised to see him in Honolulu (in the Pro Bowl) in a few years. He is as good a back as we have seen all year."

McCoy rushed for a career-high 183 yards in Pitt's 19-15 win on Nov. 28, then had a key 47-yard touchdown run a week later as the Panthers wrapped up a trip to El Paso with a 34-10 win at Connecticut.

That victory gave the Panthers their first nine-win season since 1982, a feat that seemed unobtainable following a surprising home loss to Bowling Green in its season opener.

"It shows the character of the players and the coaches, never giving up and coming every day to practice to work hard and get better," McCoy said.

Oregon State (8-4) also got off to a rocky start, dropping its first two games at Stanford and Penn State. But the Beavers got a taste of what Rodgers could provide, as he scored twice against the Nittany Lions and two more times the following week in a win over Hawaii.

Rodgers' breakout game, though, came Sept. 25 against previously top-ranked Southern California. Oregon State stunned the Trojans in Corvallis 27-21 behind 186 yards and two scores from Rodgers, its first win over a No. 1 team in 41 years and a victory that made the Beavers the Pac-10 front-runners.

Oregon State won its next six conference games as well, setting up a home finale in the Civil War against Oregon on Nov. 29. With a victory, the Beavers would head to their first Rose Bowl in 44 years.

But Rodgers hurt his shoulder in a win at Arizona a week earlier, and couldn't play against the Ducks. The disparity in the ground game was the big difference in the 65-38 loss as the Beavers were outrushed 385-89.

"There will be some residual effect from (not winning that game), but this is no time for babies," coach Mike Riley said. "We can't whine about that anymore, we're going to have to get ready to go."

Rodgers' shoulder is improving, and there's a good chance the 5-foot-6 back, who became the Pac-10's first freshman to win offensive player of the year honors, will play in the Sun Bowl in his home state of Texas.

One Beaver who almost certainly won't play is his brother, James, who was the team's starting running back with Jacquizz sidelined. James Rodgers averaged 8.9 yards on 46 carries and was second on the team with 51 receptions, but he suffered a broken collarbone against Oregon.

If Jacquizz Rodgers can go, he'll be running at a Pitt defense led by senior linebacker Scott McKillop, the Big East defensive player of the year. McKillop ranks second nationally with 6.5 solo tackles per game.

The game could come down to which junior quarterback makes the fewest mistakes, and if that's the case, the Beavers may have the edge. Lyle Moevao is coming off his best game of the season, a 374-yard, five-touchdown performance against Oregon. Seven of his 27 completions went to All-Pac-10 receiver Sammie Stroughter, who had 145 of his conference-leading 952 yards.

Pitt quarterback Bill Stull, meanwhile, threw nine touchdowns in 11 games, and was rarely asked to make plays downfield with McCoy and versatile senior back LaRod Stephens-Howling behind him.

Oregon State is 4-0 in bowl games under Riley, including a 39-38 win over Missouri in the 2006 Sun Bowl.

The Beavers and Panthers have played once previously, a 38-13 Pitt win in the 2002 Insight Bowl that was Oregon State's last bowl loss. That was the Panthers' last postseason victory.