South Florida is on a mission to win its first ever conference title, and the quality of opponents is about to elevate after three consecutive wins over the likes of Ball State, Florida A&M and UTEP. The Bulls are just 28-30 in Big East play since joining the conference in 2005, and with its most talented cast in recent memory, has its eye on pushing past new heights in league play this year. The Bulls are 4-0 for the fourth time in five years, and are just one of 22 schools still undefeated in 2011.
Pittsburgh enters Thursday's contest after losing two straight games to Iowa and Notre Dame, respectively. Last weekend's 15-12 loss to the Irish has to especially sting, as the Panthers gave up a fourth quarter touchdown and stalled offensively thereafter in a hard-fought game. Pittsburgh is in the middle of a rough five-game stretch, which includes dates with Rutgers and Utah following this weekend's showdown with USF.
Pittsburgh leads the all-time series with South Florida 5-3, including last season's 17-10 win.
The Bulls' offense is led by the versatile B.J. Daniels at quarterback. Daniels has already thrown for 1,071 yards and eight touchdowns, and has added an element to the running game as well. Through the first four contests, he is the team's second leading rusher with 215 yards on two touchdowns. Running back Darrell Scott leads the ground attack with an average of 87 yards rushing per game, including five touchdowns. Sterli Griffin is the leading receiver with 22 catches for 248 yards and one touchdown.
South Florida is averaging 523.2 yards of total offense per game, and has proven to be a quick strike, big-play unit. In the past three games, USF has scored 12 touchdowns on drives that took two minutes or less. The Pitt defense will present USF with its toughest challenge since opening day, when the Bulls played in South Bend.
"I think they have a really solid defensive football team," said head coach Skip Holtz. "They held Notre Dame, really to 15 points, and I thought they did a great job with it. It certainly wasn't a fluke."
Defensively, the Bulls are surrendering 313.2 yards per game, and are allowing just 82 yards rushing per game (2.7 yards per carry.) The USF defense has been very opportunistic, recording seven interceptions and six fumble recoveries, not to mention 12 sacks. Julius Forte and Claude Davis have registered three sacks apiece this season, and Mike Lanaris leads the team in tackles with 27 and has one interception thus far.
Adjusting to the talents of Pitt running Ray Graham will make or break USF defensively Thursday night, according to Holtz.
"It all starts with Ray Graham and their offensive line," said Holtz. "He's so elusive..he's extremely quick. I think that's probably one of his bigger assets."
The Panthers are led offensively by Graham, who leads the Big East in rushing and is eighth nationally with 127 yards per game. He has also been a quality receiver for quarterback Tino Sunseri out of the backfield, and is second in the Big East in all-purpose yards with 159.2 yards per game. Graham had 82 yards rushing and eight catches for 43 yards against Notre Dame, while Sunseri completed 22-of-30 passes for 165 yards and a touchdown.
Sunseri leads a passing attack that is averaging 221.5 yards per game this season, with five passing touchdowns. Pitt head coach Todd Graham still wants to see more production out of the passing game.
"We have to stretch the field horizontally and we have to stretch the field vertically. We're not getting the opportunities to stretch the field vertically like we need to," said Graham. "A lot of that has to do with not getting the ball out on time. We have done a lot of good things with running the football and that is an important part of it as well."
The defense gave up 398 yards to the Irish last week, including 182 on the ground, but Pitt limited Notre Dame to a season low 15 points and ultimately gave its offense a chance to win the game. The unit has allowed the offense to grab early leads, as no opponent has scored first quarter points through four games. Pitt is averaging 2.75 sacks per game which ties for 23rd nationally, and has played the run well. The Panthers rank 34th nationally in run defense, giving up 105.5 yards per contest.
K'Waun Williams leads the Big East with 6.75 solo tackles per game. Pitt will get perhaps its toughest challenge to date this weekend in USF quarterback B.J. Daniels.
"They're a big read-zone team and he does a great job with that. He also does a good job with protecting himself and you can tell he is experienced. Our job is to confuse him and keep him in check this Thursday," said Graham. "When Daniels starts to scramble, we need to make sure we match up the routes in our zone and don't give up any cheap plays. He's very different than anyone we have faced up to this point."
Graham will present major problems for the USF defense, and containing him will likely be the key to the game for the Bulls on the road. Daniels is an explosive quarterback who can be a game changer, but this week he will face a Pitt defense that applies pressure and shuts down the run.