Pitt defense needs strong start vs. South Florida
Greg Romeus, Aaron Berry and Austin Ramson swarm Iowa quarterback Ricky Stanzi.
Pitt's Tony Tucker wrestles the ball from Iowa's Jake Christensen late in the Panthers' 21-20 win Sept. 20.
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In the past three games, Pitt's defense has allowed three points in the fourth quarter. The Panthers came from behind to win two of those games and held on to a slim lead to win the other.
It is the kind of dominant defense Panthers coach Dave Wannstedt has been building since he arrived before the 2005 season.
There's just one problem: The defense has closed games in impressive fashion but has had a tough time getting off to a strong start.
Pitt might have been able to survive playing one quarter of great defense against Syracuse and Iowa, but Wannstedt knows that the Panthers must be much better at the start of games for the team to continue winning. And that is especially true tonight when Pitt (3-1, 1-0 Big East) plays No. 10 South Florida (5-0, 0-0) at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.
- The matchup: Pitt (3-1, 1-0 Big East) vs. No. 10 South Florida (5-0, 0-0), 7:30 p.m. today, Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla. South Florida is favored by 13 1/2.
- TV/Radio: ESPN; WWSW-FM (94.5), WBGG-AM (970) and Sirius Channel 113.
- Pitt: Is 1-1 at South Florida. ... Is 5-9 in games played on Thursday night; lost past three Thursday night games by a combined 132-60. ... Has scored on all 13 of its trips inside the red zone (10 TDs, 3 FGs).
- South Florida: Leads the series, 3-2, and has won the past two meetings. ... Head coach Jim Leavitt has an overall record of 84-47 (.641 winning percentage). ... Could be without All-American DE George Selvie, who is questionable with an ankle injury. ... QB Matt Grothe leads the Big East in total offense (278.8 yards per game).
- Hidden stat: Pitt has been the least-penalized team in the Big East (20.8 yards per game); South Florida is one of the most (57.2 ypg, sixth).
The Bulls feature a high-powered spread offense that leads the Big East in total offense (464.4 yards per game) and has scored 31 points or more four times. They are led by standout dual-threat quarterback Matt Grothe, who leads the Big East in touchdown passes (8), passing (235 yards per game) and total offense (278.8 yards per game), and have a host of dangerous skill position players.
Wannstedt said dealing with the Bulls will be tough enough to begin with, but the Panthers will have no chance to win if the defense doesn't
play well for the whole game.
"We've started slow on defense the past couple of weeks," Wannstedt said. "And by slow I mean, we haven't made many big plays early to change or impact the game and we have to get that going.
"And these guys, if you look at what they do they will challenge us from start to finish. They are four wide receivers, five wide receivers -- they are as spread and wide open as anybody we'll face. They will play 30 percent of the game without having a running back on the field," he said of South Florida. "So we need to start out playing fast and match their speed."
Wannstedt said the most puzzling aspect is the poor early play of the defensive line, which was supposed to carry the load for the team. The Panthers lead the Big East in sacks -- 3.25 per game -- but most have come in the fourth quarter.
"I think two things are behind the way we've played in the fourth quarter," Wannstedt said. "We are in good shape, and I also think that in the fourth quarter, when teams have been in passing situations, we have been able to turn those guys up front loose. They are playmakers for us, and I don't think there is any question that those guys have to be productive for us to be good on defense.
"And in the fourth quarter, when teams have had to try and throw it against us -- our guys have been able to use their ability to just go after it."
Middle linebacker Scott McKillop said the Panthers need to play a near-perfect game to beat the Bulls. He said the Panthers can't miss tackles and can't lose sight of Grothe no matter where he is on the field.
"If we go out there and start slow they will be ahead of us really fast -- it will turn ugly for us really quick and then it will be a long night," McKillop said. "We need to perform well early in all three phases, but especially defense. I think we've come out a little flat and teams are catching us and making us pay. We have to come out and play fast; we have to come out and make some plays and just try and get stronger as the game goes on."
First Published October 2, 2008 12:00 am