Pitt Football: Panthers prep for S. Florida's strong arm

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Pitt survived its scare Saturday at Syracuse.

And while the 34-24 victory wasn't a thing of beauty, that survival means Thursday night the Panthers will be involved in something they really haven't been a part of since 2005's season opener against Notre Dame:

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Game: South Florida (5-0) vs. Pitt (3-1), 7:30 p.m. Thursday.

Where: Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla.


A big game that is meaningful to both the Panthers and their opponent -- South Florida -- and one that will be watched with at least some interest nationally.

That's because the No. 10 Bulls are 5-0 and are considered the best team in the Big East. If the Panthers (3-1, 1-0) could pull an upset, they'd be viewed as the team to beat in the conference and likely find themselves ranked next week for the first time since the preseason.

And as Pitt middle linebacker Scott McKillop describes it, the Panthers would be able to wipe away some of the negative vibes that have surrounded the program since losing the season opener to Bowling Green and struggling to beat mediocre teams in each of their past three games.

"Whatever it looked like, whatever people think about it, whatever we did or didn't do right -- we won the game and now we are 3-1 and on a little bit of a roll," McKillop said.

"Now we go to find out where we stand -- South Florida is the measuring stick for the rest of the conference. They are a great team and they've been rolling this year.

"It has been a long time since we got a chance to play on national television with something on the line and we need to capitalize on it -- we need to show that we're a good team, that we can play with good teams and beat them."

Pitt will have a short week to prepare for South Florida, which is coming off a 41-10 victory against North Carolina State, but that could work to the Panthers' advantage. The longer they'd have to watch film of and think about South Florida's firepower, the scarier the game could become.

Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said the most important fact is that the Panthers, coming off a win, are in a good state of mind.

"I've been around these short weeks," Wannstedt said.

"Every year when I was with the Cowboys, I think four years when I was with the Bears and three years when I was with the Dolphins, we played on Thursday -- Thanksgiving -- and one thing that I think helps you more than anything else is what you do the week before.

"If you do well the week before, if you look back, teams usually on a short practice, guys aren't as sore, guys are into it and guys are excited to go out and play again.

"So the win [against Syracuse] will definitely give us a chance to prepare as best we can in three days."

The Bulls feature the Big East's top-ranked offense (they average 36.4 points and 464.4 yards of total offense per game). They are ranked third in the conference in scoring defense (16.8 points per game) and ranked No.1 in total defense (243.8 yards per game).

And the key to the Bulls' success, like that of many teams, is a top-flight quarterback in junior Matt Grothe, who last season was one of only three players in the country, along with Florida's Tim Tebow and Central Michigan's Dan LeFevour, to throw for at least 2,500 yards and rush for 850 yards.

Grothe is elusive, the unquestioned leader of the Bulls, and he is hard to bring down. McKillop said that outside of West Virginia's Pat White, there is no other quarterback the Panthers will face who can hurt them in so many ways.

"I've said this many times -- Matt Grothe is the most underrated quarterback in the country," McKillop said. "He's as good as anyone out there, anyone you can name. He just makes plays and you can see he's matured as a player since he was starting as a freshman.

"Back then he made a lot of plays just on his ability. Now he has ability plus he understands the game much better and he has mastered their offense.

"He's just a very dangerous player and frankly, one of those players who you must account for every single play. We better be ready from the first snap or it will be a long, long day."

Paul Zeise can be reached at pzeise@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1720.


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