All week, the focus has been on B.J. Daniels, and for good reason. The sophomore quarterback got off to a slow start, but has helped jumpstart South Florida to three consecutive wins. In these last three games, Daniels has completed 34-of-52 passes (65.4%) for three touchdown passes, and just one interception. One thing different about Holtz' offense, is that it's more conventional. Daniels has rushed just 17 times for 50 yards in the last three wins, with two touchdowns--both in the 38-30 win at Cincinnati.
Daniels can run, but the Panthers are just as cautious at how well Daniels can throw the ball around.
"He can throw the ball a mile," defensive coordinator Phil Bennett said. "I mean that. He made a throw one time against Florida, I think it was 75 yards."
Even though Daniels is in a more conventional system as opposed to last year, Pitt isn't buying in to it too much. They're coming into this game expecting Daniels to spread out the defense, and take off. Even if he doesn't, he's fast and elusive enough in the pocket to give the defense fits.
Bennett is very familiar with what the Bulls can do. He coached against Skip Holtz in Conference USA, when Holtz was the head coach at East Carolina, and Bennett was the head coach at SMU. Offensive coordinator Todd Fitch was the offensive coordinator at East Carolina at that same time.
"Their quarterback is a lot more mobile," defensive end Brandon Lindsey said. "He likes to keep the ball whether he's supposed to or not. We have to stay in our lanes and just contain him. I'm not used to playing against a quarterback who can run so well. You just have to watch the tape. If you watch the tape, he makes defenses look silly."
South Florida's biggest running game of the season was a 244-yard performance at Florida back in September. They failed to produce 100 yards in its first three Big East games of the season, but have collectively rushed for 157 and 172 yards in the last two weeks.
The Bulls employ two running backs--similar to how Pitt does with Dion Lewis and Ray Graham--but with a little more emphasis to senior Moise Plancher. Plancher is averaging 4.7 yards a carry this year. He is joined by sophomore Demetris Murray, who is averaging 5.0 yards a carry. It was Murray who had the big game last week at Louisville, rushing for 106 yards on 13 carries.
With a running quarterback like Daniels, the Bulls can either try to use Plancher and Murray to set up Daniels with the run, or Daniels will come out throwing to set up these two for a long day on the ground. Murray is the bigger back at 5-10, 206 while Plancher gives them a change of pace at 5-8, 196.
"To win, we're going to have to stop the run," linebacker Max Gruder said. "B.J. Daniels and their running backs do a great job running the ball as we can see on film. They can do a lot of things that present a lot of matchup problems, including the run. We need to stop it just like we needed to do last week to win this game."
Statistically, receiver Dontavia Bogan is the biggest threat the Panthers have seen from any Big East receiver they have faced this year. Bogan has 32 receptions for 484 yards and four touchdowns. Then, there's Evan Landi--a bigger, possession type receiver--at 6-3, 221. Landi has 18 catches for 283 yards and two touchdowns on the season.
Techinically, Lindsey Lamar is a receiver, but he does his damage in the return game. Behind Bogan and Landi, he is South Florida's third-leading receiver. Already this season, on kick returns, Lindsey has returned two for touchdowns. Last week, trailing 14-3 at Louisville, Lamar returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown to trim the Cardinal lead to four points. It sparked the team, as South Florida came back to win at Louisville in overtime, 27-24. Pitt will need to get its special teams in order, in dealing with one of the most dangerous returnman in the Big East.
"The mistakes are definitely correctable," Wannstedt said. "What's interesting is that you can only play this game successfully when you play with a high level of intensity. If you lose that edge, just a little bit, you can be 90% correct, but that 10% can mean the difference in giving up a big play or making a big play. ‘Did we watch it? Did we correct it? Did we watch the kickoff return for a touchdown by South Florida?' Yes, multiple times."
It will be interesting to see if South Florida tries any of the schemes that UConn's offensive line tried against Pitt last week, and if so, how Pitt adjusts to them.
"As a coach it'd be easy to say it's not going to happen," Bennett said. "We have to do a better job of putting (the defense) in position to be successful. I expect us to do that this week, as coaches."
The Bulls are averaging 151.9 yards a game on the ground, fifth in the Big East. They have allowed 20 sacks this season, an average of one sack for every 9.9 passing attempts.
From left to right, the Bulls have senior Jamar Bass (6-3, 283) at tackle, unior Jeremiah Warren (6-4, 315) inside at guard, senior Sampson Genus (6-1, 315) the center, junior Chaz Hine (6-4, 300) on the right side at guard, and senior Jacob Sims (6-5, 290) at right tackle. It's a very veteran group.
"We're definitely chomping to get back Saturday," defensive tackle Myles Caragein said. "It's been a rough couple days just trying to get past (the loss to UConn). It's a one-game season. We just have to keep taking it one day at a time."
Schematically, in its base 4-3, the Bulls look similar to Pitt's front four, but put more focus on stopping the run. Instead of bringing pressure to stop the quarterback, they focus more on gap control, and stopping the run.
"They're pretty big up front, they're athletic," left guard Chris Jacobson said. "They are not a really big pressure team, but they are big up front, and their linebackers can run really well."
Ryne Giddins (12 tackles, 3 TFL, 1.5 sacks) will match up on Jason Pinkston's side, with Terrell McClain (2 TFL, 2 sacks) on that side at tackle. Cory Grissom (1.5 sacks, 3 TFL) is the other tackle, with Craig Marshall on Jordan Gibbs' side. Marshall is the most productive defensive lineman, with 28 tackles, 4 sacks and 8 tackles for losses.
Similar to the defensive line, the focus of the linebackers is to stop the run. The role of the defensive line isn't so much to make all the plays, as much as it is to run gap control and put the linebackers in position to make all the tackles. There's not too much blitzing from the linebackers, but they are all able to run the field well and make tackles. The three starting linebackers are the top three leading tacklers on the team.
"They're an in-the-box team, so they try to stop the run," running back Ray Graham said. "They're pretty good against the run. We're going to have to come ready to play."
Sam Barrington leads the team with 50 tackles on the season, and starts at middle linebacker. He is joined by Jacquian Williams and Devekeyan Lattimore as the outside linebackers. Williams is second on the team with 48 stops, and also leads the linebackers with 2.5 sacks and 6 tackles for losses. He lines up primarily on the strong side, with Lattimore on the weak side. Lattimore has 46 tackles, 1.5 sacks and 3.5 tackles for losses.
Pitt is expecting to see eight in the box against South Florida. Though the linebackers have the proven ability to make tackles in the run game, the Bulls bring Jon Lejiste as that extra guy in the box. Lejiste leads the secondary with 3 sacks and 4.5 tackles for losses. Cornerback Quenton Washington is fourth on the team with 40 tackles.
From a coverage standpoint, the Bulls like to disguise and mix up their coverages. The result is 10 interceptions from eight different players this season. Two players--safety Kayvon Webster and linebacker Michael Lanaris--are tied for the team-lead with two interceptions. Starting corner opposite Washington is Mistra Raymond. Raymond and Washington are more visible in stopping the run, while the safeties--much like Pitt--come up with the interceptions.
"They do a lot of the same stuff as a lot of other teams," quarterback Tino Sunseri said. "They're going to try to load the box with one high safety trying to make sure they take away the run first. It's not a lot of man on base downs. I'm sure as soon as you get into a lot of third downs they play a little bit different coverages. We just have to be able to recognize them and take advantage of them."