TAMPA, Fla. -- A big win?
An important win?
An ugly win?
You bet, but frankly, the Pitt Panthers wouldn't have it any other way, particularly this season as they seem to specialize in making every game -- win or lose -- far more difficult than it really needs to be, and Saturday was no exception.
The Panthers once again played a careless brand of mistake-riddled football but somehow managed to find just enough to pull out a 17-10 victory against South Florida before a crowd of 43,844 at Raymond James Stadium.
After the game, Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt breathed a sigh of relief and said that while his team certainly didn't play well, their character and leadership and ability to handle adversity helped them overcome a lot of self-inflicted wounds to win this game.
Pitt (6-4, 4-1) is bowl-eligible for the third consecutive season and the Panthers still control their own destiny with regards to the race for the Big East Conference championship. Pitt still needs only to win its final two games -- against West Virginia and Cincinnati -- in order to earn the conference's automatic berth in the Bowl Championship Series.
"I would just start off by saying that I don't know if we could have challenged ourselves emotionally any more than what we did [Saturday]," Wannstedt said. "And by that I mean, our defense played 86 plays because of the pass interference penalties which were called. We block a punt and then [fumble] the punt, we come after them to block [a punt] and rough the punter, I mean think of the possessions we gave up, we might have given away 40 plays, or taken away 40 plays from our offense because of just mishaps out there.
"But the great thing, and I mean great, was that our guys, as they have all year, they never wavered, there was never any offense versus defense or coach versus coach, everybody just hung together and kept giving a little more and we found a way to win the game.
"This was a heckuva win for our football team, for a lot of reasons. We needed to bounce back [from the Connecticut loss] and the encouraging thing is, we still have yet to put together a complete game."
The mishaps Wannstedt spoke of in this game came early and often in just about every way, shape and form -- starting an ill-fated screen pass on the Panthers' first series of the game which stalled the drive and forced them to settle for a field goal, and ending with a pass interference penalty on cornerback Antwuan Reed on the Bulls' final drive.
In between the Panthers made a number of miscues:
• They were penalized 11 times for 116 yards -- including five pass interference penalties and a total of seven penalties that gave South Florida first downs. Four of the pass interference penalties were on Reed, who redeemed himself, sort of, with an interception of South Florida quarterback B.J. Daniels on the final play of the game to seal the win.
• Safety Andrew Taglianetti blocked a punt early in the third quarter with the score tied, 3-3, and it was picked up by Nate Nix who tried to advance it toward the end zone. But he fumbled when he was hit and it was recovered by South Florida. As a result (Nix had possession and lost it), the Bulls were awarded the ball and a fresh set of downs.
• Pitt stopped South Florida on third-and-3 from the Bulls' 9 and forced a punt, but on fourth-and-1 from the 11, the Panthers tried to block the punt and Max Gruder was penalized 5 yards for running into the punter. The result was a first down for South Florida and a fresh set of downs.
• On the first play of the third quarter, the Panthers appeared to have Daniels sacked for a large loss but he escaped and threw the ball down the field incomplete. But Pitt safety Dom DeCicco was penalized 15 yards for rough the passer as he made helmet-to-helmet contact.
• The Panthers finally seemed to seize control of the game midway through the fourth quarter and -- leading 17-10 and looking to try and run out the clock -- they drove 12 plays in 64 yards and used nearly six minutes of possession time. But they weren't able to seal the victory because Dan Hutchins missed a 43-yard field goal and that gave the Bulls one more chance to tie the score.
"I think the key [to staying focused throughout all of the miscues] is to not get too high or too low on any given play, just stick with each other because we are like brothers on and off the field," Pitt defensive end Brandon Lindsey said. "We just had to stay with each other and keep our heads up and not get too down on each other."
NOTES -- In the Panthers' previous three games combined, they had committed 11 penalties for 90 yards. ...Three of the five pass interference penalties came on third down. ...Taglianetti's blocked punt was his fourth career blocked kick. ... Dom DeCicco had 13 tackles, which matched a career high. ... Lindsey had a sack, his 10th of the season. That's the first time a Panthers player has recorded 10 or more sacks in a season since 2007 when Joe Clermond had 10 1/2.
Paul Zeise: email@example.com or 412-263-1720. First Published November 21, 2010 5:00 AM