MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) _ Walt Harris told Liberty Bowl officials months ago that Pittsburgh would be back in December as participants. Not many people believed him.

The first-year coach had a chance to convert more believers today when his Panthers (6-5) played No. 22 Southern Mississippi (8-3).

``We've been fighting for our self-respect as well as our national respect, and our players and assistant coaches got it done,'' Harris said. ``We're very excited about being here.''

It won't be easy for the Panthers, who hoped to finish with their first winning season since 1991 in their first bowl since 1989. Southern Mississippi, the Conference USA champion for a second straight year, has a stingy defense that ranked 18th in the country.

The Golden Eagles are on their own mission. They want a victory to help them finish the season ranked in the Top 25 for the first time in the 1990s.

``It is where you end up, and that is one of our goals _ to be a Top 25 team, and we have to win this game to do that,'' Eagles coach Jeff Bower said.

Harris, who left his job as Ohio State's quarterbacks coach to replace Johnny Majors as coach, gave everyone a chance at a starting job when he took over.

Senior lineman Tony Orlandini said the Panthers expected Harris to bring a new spark to the Pittsburgh team, and he has done just that.

``From blocking schemes to the receivers, every position on the field he has brought in new things that helped us become better players,'' Orlandini said.

Fifth-year Pete Gonzalez benefited the most. He became the starting quarterback and led the Big East in passing with 241 yards a game and total offense (256.9 yards). He also threw 30 touchdown passes.

But he hasn't faced a defense as tough as Southern Mississippi's this season. The Eagles allowed 314 yards per game and are 11th in pass efficiency defense despite playing three of the nation's Top 10 passing teams (Nevada, Tennessee and Louisville).

Patrick Surtain led the secondary with six interceptions, while the defensive front had 24 sacks. Harris has been impressed.

``You don't have gaps,'' he said. ``There's not many long plays run against them. Nobody breaks a long run or a long pass.''

Southern Mississippi's strength is Eric Booth, who led the nation in kickoff returns. Lee Roberts went 18 quarters without being intercepted, and Harold Shaw rushed for 100 yards five times this season.

Bower said he won't overlook the team that surprised bowl officials by agreeing to come three days before the bid was extended. Pittsburgh upset league foes Virginia Tech and West Virginia to qualify as the conference's fourth-best team.

The Liberty Bowl, which benefits St. Jude Children's Hospital in Memphis, has its first sponsors, AXA and The Equitable.