A Thursday Big East opener sees Pittsburgh (2-2) and #16 South Florida (4-0) with momentum swinging in opposite directions. The Panthers have lost two straight games and look to get that high-octane offense up to speed while South Florida seems to be clicking on all cylinders. The two square off in Heinz Field Thursday night on ESPN.
Pittsburgh (2-2) vs. #16 South Florida (4-0)
8 p.m. ESPN (3D), ESPN3.com
Twitter: @KevinOnCFB, @BigEastXMNR
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Big East Examiner: South Florida faces Pittsburgh before national audience
The hiring of Todd Graham at Pittsburgh was supposed to bring a fast-paced offense to western Pennsylvania but so far this season the Panthers have been largely sputtering, averaging 370 yards per game in total offense (81st nationally) and scoring 27.3 points per game (73rd). It should take some time before Graham can truly have the players he needs to meet those expectations, but after losing two games the focus begins now on winning the Big East conference, possibly on their way out the door for the ACC.
Pittsburgh leave the Big East in 2014, unless the ACC, Big East and Pittsburgh can sort out an agreement to let the Panthers leave the Big East earlier than the conference bylaws allow. Syracuse will also be making that conference switch. Meanwhile, South Florida is left wondering if their conference will even exist in 2014 so now appears to be the time to make a statement. South Florida is looking to go 5-0 for the fourth time in program history.
“You never take one for granted,” South Florida head coach Skip Holtz said this week. “You’re excited about the positive things that happened on the field. But you pinch yourself because you’ve got to do so many things better.”
South Florida opened the season with a win at Notre Dame, the same team that handed Pittsburgh their second straight loss last week. It was the second time in as many weeks the Panthers let a fourth-quarter lead slip away.
“We have to learn to finish, and we’re going to,” quarterback Tino Sunseri said. “We’re so close.”
Pittsburgh’s biggest problem the past couple years has been an inability to win big games against the tougher teams on their schedule. Despite changing head coaches, that has already shown to be a problem for Pittsburgh with losses to Iowa and Notre Dame. With one of the trendy picks in the Big East coming to Heinz Field, picking up a conference win would help to buck that trend.
“Conference play is the big thing,” Pittsburgh defensive tackle Chas Alecxih said. “We’re going to focus on that and with the short week, we’re really going to have to get going.”
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South Florida quarterback has thrown for eight touchdowns and only one interception to help lead the Bulls’ 25th ranked passing offense. Last year Daniels threw 11 touchdown passes and was intercepted 13 times. His completion percentage (66.1 percent) is currently eight points higher than it was at the end of last season. Since going 18-for-30 against Notre Dame in week one for 128 yards, Daniels has thrown for 943 yards on 64-of-94 passing (68% completion).
“It’s very important to start off well. We’re 4-0, but we still have a lot of season left and a lot of work to do,” quarterback Daniels said. This is the first of two road games in the Big East against co-Big East champions form a season ago. Next week South Florida travels to Connecticut looking to get some revenge from a loss last season in a game that played a huge role in UConn earning a long shot BCS bid. Connecticut, Pittsburgh and West Virginia all tied for the Big East championship last season. A win on Thursday night would set South Florida on the right track to try and claim their first Big East title and possibly their first trip to a BCS game in January as a result.
For Pittsburgh, it will be important to focus on the running game. Fortunately they have one of the leading rushers in the nation in Ray Graham. Graham’s 508 rushing yards is seventh in the nation but his weekly rushing production has gone down each week of the season. After rushing for 201 yards in Pittsburgh’s season opening victory against Buffalo, he rushed for 121 yards against FCS Main, 97 yards against Iowa and 89 yards last week against Notre Dame. South Florida is 15th in the nation against the run, allowing an average of 82 yards per game in September. Getting that running game on track will be slowed by the loss of senior guard Chris Jacobson’s season ending surgery on his left knee following the Iowa game. Sophomore Cory King made his first start last week against Notre Dame and will continue to handle the starting duties this week.
Stats of Note
Pittsburgh has fumbled the football seven times this season, although they have only lost two. South Florida has fumbled just twice all season, losing one.
South Florida’s offense has been clicking early on. In the first quarter of their first four games, South Florida has scored 65 points. Pittsburgh has yet to surrender a first quarter point this season.
I think Pittsburgh squeaks out a victory tonight, but it certainly will not be pretty. In a must-win situation, the Panthers find a way to put up just enough points to send the Bulls home with a conference loss.
Pittsburgh 23, South Florida 20
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