Pitt's victory against No. 21 Rutgers Saturday might have been considered an upset, but given how the Panthers' season has played out it really shouldn't have been that much of a surprise.
The Panthers (5-6, 2-4 Big East) have shown a remarkable ability to play up against their best competition this season, but also a tendency to play poorly against the lesser teams on their schedule.
Saturday's 27-6 win against the Scarlet Knights was Pitt's second win this season against a team that was ranked at the time, the other the 35-17 win against then-No. 13 Virginia Tech Sept. 15. The Panthers also took No. 1 Notre Dame, which appears bound for the BCS championship game, to triple overtime.
"I think everyone does, if you're a competitor, you like playing good teams," Pitt coach Paul Chryst said. "We certainly had a lot of respect for Rutgers. That's why you come to these places. You want to play in big games against good teams."
While Pitt has shown up for the big games, the lesser ones have been a bit of a challenge. Losses to Youngstown State, Syracuse and Connecticut are reasons the Panthers need a win at South Florida Saturday to become eligible for a bowl game.
While it might be easy to put those losses all on Pitt, quarterback Tino Sunseri offered a different theory.
"I don't know if it's [us playing] 'not so well,'" Sunseri said. "Sometimes, you're not able to execute. You have to give credit to those teams, they make plays."
Pitt limited Rutgers' ability to make plays Saturday, holding the Scarlet Knights to 207 total yards. The defensive effort was a big reason this win was able to follow a slightly different script than Pitt's other upset and near-upset this season.
Against Virginia Tech and Notre Dame, the Panthers jumped out to fast starts. They led the Hokies, 14-0, after the first quarter and, even though they were tied 3-3 against Notre Dame after 15 minutes, Pitt's offense moved the ball well in the first quarter against Notre Dame's stout defense.
Saturday, though, the Panthers sputtered in the first quarter. They gained just four first downs and punted the ball four times.
"I think this is the best win so far for us, to hit adversity first and to keep on playing, and to keep on producing," Sunseri said. "A lot of those other wins we've had, we started off really fast, we've scored on the first or second drive, had that kind of momentum. Here, it was kind of that cat and mouse game between us and Rutgers."
The contest at South Florida looks like it could be one of those games that Pitt has let slip away this season. The Bulls (3-8, 1-5 Big East) are a disappointment and have nothing left to play for.
The game in Tampa, though, might also fall under the "big game" category that Pitt has played well in this season, simply because the Panthers must win if they want to go to a postseason bowl game.
"We're just going to think about playing one more game together," center Ryan Turnley said. "That's going to be our main focus."
Sam Werner: email@example.com or on Twitter @SWernerPG First Published November 26, 2012 5:00 AM