Football: Panthers look to bounce back from loss, face South Florida

By Dustin Gabler

After losing their first Big East game of the season last Thursday at Connecticut, the Panthers… After losing their first Big East game of the season last Thursday at Connecticut, the Panthers had a few extra days to reflect on their loss.

But they won’t have too much time to dwell on the negatives because they’re traveling to take on a hot South Florida team tomorrow at noon.

The Bulls (6-3, 3-2 Big East) are riding on a recent winning streak. In past years, the Bulls tended to slide from the Big East race in October, but first-year head coach Skip Holtz has USF playing strong football late in the season.

“I think we’re all aware that they beat Louisville last week and that they have won three games in a row. Playing down there is a challenge,” Pitt head coach Dave Wannstedt said in a news conference. “We will obviously have to play a high-level game in all three phases to get back on track and keep moving forward.”

But Pitt still controls its own destiny — a win against USF would put it right back on track to become the conference champion.

The team knows this and is trying to become bowl-eligible for the third straight year.

“Right now we have to find a way to win a game, and all that other stuff really doesn’t matter,” Wannstedt said. “We have to win a game, become bowl-eligible and go from there.”

Holtz thinks that the Panthers (5-4, 3-1 Big East) are the most skilled team in the conference.

“You look at them from a talent standpoint, and I definitely think they’re one of the most talented teams in this league,” he said. “I just don’t see a lot of weaknesses on this team; it will be a great challenge for us.”

The biggest difficulty the Panthers faced against Connecticut was what they did to themselves.

Running back Ray Graham fumbled on the kickoff, the kickoff coverage team let up a huge return touchdown, and quarterback Tino Sunseri threw two interceptions.

“It’s my job — our job as coaches — to keep working with the kids to correct those mistakes, and I know we’re capable of doing it,” Wannstedt said. “Leading up to that game we played three games in a row where we were focused and, for the most part, protected the football, so we know we’re capable of doing it. We just have to get back to coaching them up and having an emphasis on what wins games. We must fix the mistakes that need to be corrected.”

Even if they are able to correct all of their own mistakes, the Panthers will still have to face a South Florida team that is arguably the hottest in the Big East.

The Bulls’ sophomore quarterback B.J. Daniels has passed for 1,325 yards this season but is menacing both running and passing: He’s run for 240 yards and four touchdowns.

“He can throw on the run and he can make all the throws as good as any quarterback we’ve faced — so he’s a dual threat. He is as dangerous throwing as he is running, so it forces you to play aggressive but disciplined defense,” Wannstedt said.

The Bulls have a defense stockpiled with Florida talent, which is known to produce speed. They will cause many problems for the Panthers if Pitt comes into the game like it did against Connecticut.

“They’re very athletic from a defensive standpoint. They put pressure on the quarterback. I think they tackle extremely well. They can run, as you would expect,” Wannstedt said. “They’re sound in their scheme. I just think athletically that they’re big and strong inside their tackles, they’re athletic on the edges as far as applying pressure, and their secondary runs well.”

Under Holtz, the Bulls’ offense has improved, adding a power aspect they did not have under former coach Jim Leavitt.

“It is different from what they did last year, but some of the plays are similar. They’ll jump in regular formation with a fullback and tight end and run the power game with a play-action pass,” Wannstedt said. “That’s a little different from what they’ve done in the past. They force you to prepare for two or three different types of attacks depending on the personnel that they have in the game.”