In his first two seasons as South Florida's quarterback B.J. Daniels was a nightmare for opposing defenses -- at least when he was running.
The bad news for defenses this season, Daniels' third as a starter, is that he has developed as a passer. That means he is now a legitimate two-way threat and one of the most dangerous players in Division I-A.
Without question, stopping Daniels will be Pitt's top priority tonight when the Panthers (2-2) play host to No. 16 South Florida (4-0) in the Big East Conference opener for both teams at Heinz Field.
Pitt's more experienced defenders said they can tell Daniels is a different player just by watching video. They said he makes more plays by dropping back and throwing than he has in the past.
- Matchup: No. 16 South Florida (4-0) vs. Pitt (2-2), 8 p.m. today, Heinz Field. The Bulls are favored by 21/2 points.
- TV, Radio: ESPN; KDKA-FM (93.7).
- Pitt: Leads the series, 5-3. ... Is 2-2 against South Florida in games played at Heinz Field. ... Has won past three games against the Bulls. ... TB Ray Graham leads the Big East in rushing with 127 yards per game. ... Has not been scored on in the first quarter. ... Averages 2.75 sacks per game.
- South Florida: Coach Skip Holtz is 2-1 against Pitt coach Todd Graham. ... Has had five consecutive eight-win seasons. ... Has opened 4-0 five times in its 15-year history, including four of the past five seasons. ... Has scored within the first four minutes of every game this season.
- Hidden stat: Pitt's offensive line has a combined total of 56 starts -- but 29 of them are by Lucas Nix.
"He used to be more of a guy who scrambled and threw the ball," said safety Jarred Holley. "But absolutely [he is a better passer,] you can tell just watching him and he really slings it, when he throws it he can pop-throw it for 80 yards like it is nothing.
"You have to just take each play one at a time. He can be hurtful with his legs and now his arm, [so] you don't want to tease yourself into thinking you know what he's going to do. We just have to be disciplined and stay in coverage until the whistle blows."
The change in Daniels, a redshirt junior, is easy to see by looking at the Bulls statistics.
Daniels has averaged 53.8 yards rushing per game and has run twice for touchdowns, but he has thrown for 267.8 yards per game with eight touchdowns.
More important, he has thrown only one interception.
Daniels is the second-leading passer in the Big East behind West Virginia's Geno Smith and he leads the conference in pass efficiency with a rating of 158.4.
He has completed 66 percent of his passes (82 of 124) and thrown for 1,071 yards.
Last year, he completed only 58 percent of his passes and threw for only 140.2 yards per game.
Pitt coach Todd Graham said Daniels is easily one of the best players the Panthers will face this year.
He said the Panthers must be disciplined enough to stick with their assignments and not get caught up chasing Daniels around because that is when he is most dangerous.
"B.J. Daniels is a lot more accurate this year," Graham said. "He's been very elusive naturally in the pocket and very patient. He has made a lot of big plays and can hurt you by buying time with his legs.
"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.
"When he 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."
Defensive tackle Myles Caragein agreed that Daniels has improved as a passer but noted that in watching video of South Florida's 52-24 victory against UTEP it became clear that the Panthers better not forget about his ability to run.
Daniels rushed for 130 yards on 15 carries in that game, including a 71-yard touchdown run in which he ran past the Miners defenders after making a few of them miss at the line of scrimmage.
"He is one of those players who can either take a sack or he can take it to the house," Caragein said.
"The defensive linemen have talked a lot about containing him, keeping him in the pocket, and that is a big thing for us -- we can't let him get out on the edge."
Daniels big game against UTEP was actually by design and a testament to just how many different things he can do.
"Every week it is a different dynamic in terms of what we see defensively," said South Florida offensive coordinator Todd Fitch. "UTEP did what we thought they would. They loaded the box with a lot of cover 1, and when teams do that, they have to account for all the players in the run game. We had some good matchups.
"When we are playing well on offense, we have a lot of versatility, and to this point we have shown a lot of different things on tape and defenses are going to have to prepare for a little bit of everything."
Paul Zeise: email@example.com or 412-263-1720.