Pitt Football: Stull's stability at base of victory

Minimizing errors is key for Pitt quarterback in Sun Bowl

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El PASO, Texas -- It has been almost four weeks since the teams picked to play in today's Sun Bowl have been announced, meaning there has been plenty of time for observers and coaches to analyze -- and probably overanalyze -- the matchup.

Scouting Report

Matchup: No. 18 Pitt (9-3) vs. No. 24 Oregon State (8-4), 2 p.m. today, Sun Bowl Stadium, El Paso, Texas. Oregon State is favored by 2.

TV/Radio: KDKA-TV (Channel 2); WWSW-FM (94.5) and WBGG-AM (Fox Sports 970).

Pitt: First bowl game appearance since the 2004 Fiesta Bowl. ... Last bowl victory came in 2002 Insight Bowl, a 38-13 win against Oregon State. That is the only meeting between these two teams. ... Is 10-14 in bowl games. ... A win would lock up the Panthers' first season with 10 or more wins since 1981. ... Punter Dave Brytus played for Purdue in the 2004 Sun Bowl and was named the special teams MVP.

Oregon State: Has won four bowl games in a row, the third-longest active bowl win streak behind Boston College (8) and Utah (7). ... Has been to a bowl game in eight of the past 10 seasons. ... Beat Missouri, 39-38, in the 2006 Sun Bowl. ... Will be without tailback Jacquizz Rodgers and receiver/return man James Rodgers, both recovering from shoulder injuries. The two account for 53 percent of the Beavers' all-purpose yards.

Hidden stat: Oregon State has recorded 34 sacks and given up only 16 sacks.

The reality is much simpler, as it is likely the same reality Pitt has faced in almost every game this season.

The Panthers likely will get a big day from tailback LeSean McCoy; the defense will show up; and thus the chances of winning will hinge on how well quarterback Bill Stull plays -- and how he is able to minimize his mistakes.

If Stull can make a few plays, avoid drive-killing sacks and, worse, throwing interceptions that lead to points for the opponents, the 18th-ranked Panthers (9-3) likely could beat No. 24 Oregon State (8-4) this afternoon at Sun Bowl Stadium.

Stull struggled in the late-season loss to Cincinnati and the victory against West Virginia, and though he wasn't spectacular in a 34-10 win against Connecticut in the season finale, he did make a few big throws in that game, including a 61-yard touchdown pass that sealed the game.

But Stull's numbers in the Panthers' past three games were pedestrian as he completed 40 of 69 passes (58 percent) for 526 yards with four touchdowns and four interceptions.

Pitt coaches and players floated some theories about Stull's late-season struggles, and many of them centered on the fact that he suffered -- and never fully recovered from -- a concussion in the Panthers' seventh game against Rutgers.

That theory likely would hold more water if Stull had not played perhaps his best game of the season in his first game back after the injury and led the Panthers to a 41-7 victory against Louisville.

Yesterday during a news conference, Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt was asked if he thought the extra time off and the fact that the players took some time completely away from football had helped Stull recover fully, clear his mind and get refocused.

"I hope so, and I really wish I could tell you," Wannstedt said. "His arm is rested, I can tell you that; I just hope his mind is rested as well, but I just don't know."

An interesting answer, one that should have Panthers fans feeling plenty confident about the outcome of today's game if it should come down to Stull making plays against the Beavers.

Wannstedt did say that the key to the game would be how quickly both offenses are able to find their rhythm after having so many days off.

He said, much like in the first game of the season, the defenses will start out a little bit ahead, and the offense able to settle in and find a groove first will have a great chance to take control of the game.

"Because of the extra time off, you have a tendency as a coach to want to add new things and sometimes you probably add things that players aren't as comfortable with as maybe they would be during the regular season," he said. "With the defense, the two things I've always believed: you play as hard as you can and know where you are supposed to be, you'll play great defense every week so it is a lot of easier in a situation like this for a defense to line up and play good than an offense. The offense has to deal with all the variables."

Oregon State coach Mike Riley agreed that it could take both offenses a little bit of time to get warmed up. The timing involved with a quarterback and receivers, he said, is something that cannot be simulated in practices, no matter how much contact there is.

"It is just different when you get out there and are facing bullets flying your way at full speed from the defense for the first time in a month," Riley said. "It takes a few series for the quarterback to get back into the speed of the game and that contributes to some of those early game struggles we see a lot in bowl games."

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


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