The South Florida Bulls (#16 AP, #14 USA Today coaches) kick off Big East conference play tonight at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh as they meet the Pittsburgh Panthers in a prime-time special. Kickoff is a little after 8:00pm Eastern time on ESPN.
The Bulls ran their record to 4-0 last Saturday with a not-as-comfortable-as-it-looked 52-24 win over the UTEP Miners. USF’s up-tempo offensive attack rolled up over 500 yards from scrimmage for the third straight game, including 373 rushing yards. B.J. Daniels threw for 202 and ran for 130, running the Bulls’ option running sets to perfection all night long. Darrell Scott rushed for another 87 yards and a touchdown, and Victor Marc added a rollicking 67-yard TD run as the Miners basically refused to tackle him.
But the concern was on defense, as the Miners’ return game and their third-string quarterback, Carson Meger, made the game more uncomfortable than expected. Helped by good field position for most of the night, UTEP hung around deep into the game and moved the ball well through the air. Only a spate of second-half turnovers, including an interception that Sam Barrington returned for a touchdown, kept the game from being a potential nail-biter.
Pittsburgh comes into the game reeling a bit following two close losses. In the first, the Panthers blew a 27-10 fourth-quarter lead to the Iowa Hawkeyes, giving up three Todd Vandenberg touchdown passes on the way to a 31-27 loss. Iowa put the ball in the end zone on its last four possessions as the Panthers totally collapsed. Last Saturday, Pittsburgh lost at home 15-12 to the Notre Dame Fighting Irish as the offense continued to struggle with Todd Graham’s high-octane offensive system. In that game, Tino Sunseri completed 22 of 30 passes, but for only 165 yards, and he was sacked five times.
USF has struggled to move the ball in their last two meetings against the Panthers, but this year may be another story. Through four games, Pittsburgh is 119th out of 120 FBS teams in pass defense. Given enough time to make throws, B.J. Daniels might be able to move the ball fairly easily against the Pittsburgh defense, which would then open up the running game for even more gains. It would also keep the ball out of the Panthers’ hands, preventing them from beginning to click on their potentially explosive offense.
For the Bulls’ defense, the key is slowing down Pittsburgh’s top offensive weapon, running back Ray Graham. He already has 489 yards rushing and six touchdowns this season, and he’s also the Panthers’ leading pass receiver. Keeping Graham under control puts more pressure on Sunseri and the weak Pittsburgh offensive line, which has allowed 17 sacks this season.
One final stat: USF has never won an ESPN Thursday night game (0-6, all since 2007), and they’ve scored a total of 33 points in their last four Thursday night appearances.