Pitt overcame a sluggish performance on offense to pull out a 17-10 win over USF on Saturday at Tampa. The Panthers improve to 6-4 on the season, and more importantly 4-1 in the Big East. Should UConn lose to Rutgers tonight, combined with a win over West Virginia next week, Pitt will win the Big East title, including the coveted BCS bowl bid.
Dion Lewis rushed for 105 yards on 22 carries with a touchdown. It's the most carries Lewis has seen in one game since he carried the ball 25 times in the season-opener at Utah. After completing just 3-of-7 passes for 31 yards in the first half, Tino Sunseri came back to complete 8-of-9 passes for 111 yards and a touchdown in the second half.
Jason Pinkston, one of the co-captains on Pitt's team, said the message at halftime was real clear.
"We weren't bowl eligible at the time," Pinkston said. "I told everybody we have to fight and play for Greg (Romeus). He's the one we have to play for, because he can't play anymore. He's one of our leaders, he's sitting at home, he's hurt, and he's depending on us. I told everybody, ‘Don't play for yourself. Play for Greg.'"
On defense, Dom DeCicco led the team with 13 tackles, tying a career-high set against UConn in 2008. Myles Caragein also tied a career-high with six tackles. Caragein and Brandon Lindsey had sacks for Pitt. It was Lindsey's 10th sack of the season. He's the first Pitt player to have 10 sacks in a season since Joe Clermond finished with 10.5 sacks in 2007.
"I don't if we could have challenged ourselves any more emotionally than we did today," Pitt head coach Dave Wannstedt said. "The great thing, is that our guys--as they have all year--everybody just hung together, and gave a little bit more, and we find a way to win the game."
Pitt let South Florida hang around in this game, thanks to a 11 penalties for 116 yards. Pitt committed just three of those penalties in the first half. Five of those penalties were pass interference calls; four of them committed by Antwuan Reed, and the other committed by Ricky Gary. Three of those five pass interference plays came on third down situations.
"We might have given away forty plays, or taken away forty plays from our offense of just mishaps out there," Wannstedt added. "Our defense played eighty-six plays because of the pass interference penalties. We had five all year, maybe not. We didn't play any different defense today."
Pitt started off the game all right, scoring on their opening drive, and eating 5:34 off the clock thanks to a 36-yard field goal from Dan Hutchins. The key on that opening drive was running the football, specifically Lewis carrying the ball for 40 yards on the first six carries. After single-handedly getting Pitt to the USF 20 on the opening drive. Pitt ran out of different variations of the I-formation, keeping two receivers on the field on all running plays. When they reached the 20, though, the Bulls picked it up, holding Lewis to two carries for no gain. Safety Jon Lejiste came up to make a big stop, forcing Pitt to a third down play. On that 3rd-and-10, Sunseri hit Ray Graham with a screen pass, which only netted one yard.
USF didn't get on the board until Maikon Bonani's 35-yard field goal just three seconds into the second quarter, which capped off a five-play, 17-yard drive for the Bulls. USF's special teams gave the offense a boost when Terrence Mitchell returned a punt 12 yards, starting shop at the Pitt 35. On the first three plays of this drive, it looked like the Bulls were going to march in for the touchdown easily. Plancher had runs of 11 and 5 before Pitt committed and offsides penalty. After the penalty, things turned around for Pitt. Caragein dropped Demetris Murray for a loss of four in the backfield, then USF committed a penalty--a delay of game penalty. Daniels completed a short pass to Moise Plancher for a gain of 10, but it was negated due to another USF penalty--a defensive holding call. Facing a 3rd-and-20 at the Pitt 34--one yard from where they started the drive, Daniels found Evan Landi for a gain of 16, getting the Bulls back in field goal range.
Pitt scored on its opening drive of the first and second half. They completed a eight-play, 74-yard drive as Tino Sunseri hit Ray Graham for a 12-yard touchdown pass, off a screen. The subject of the screen pass was a topic this past week, as offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti has tried to implement it into the game plan. Graham had two other catches in the game off screen passes, but totaled -3 yards on his two previous attempts, largely in part to the fact he had little to no blocking in front of him.
"I love catching the ball out of the backfield," Graham said. "I love getting out in open space to make defenders miss. The first (reception in the first half), there were two defenders there. The second time, I scored, and there was nobody out there."
The Bulls answered with a four-play, 80-yard drive as Terrence Mitchell ran 45 yards for a touchdown off a reverse. The entire Pitt defense got sucked in to the right side, as Mitchell reversed to the left side of the field. Only Antwuan Reed was in the vicinity, but he was picked up by two blockers. Jarred Holley was a long shot to make the tackle on the play, but he was picked up as well. It was a tough series for Reed, who single-handedly gave the Bulls 30 yards on this drive on two pass interference penalties.
Pitt answered again with a nine-play, 80-yard drive that lasted 4:14 and gave Pitt a 17-10 lead just seven seconds into the final quarter. This second touchdown drive was set up by two passing plays--mainly a 10-yarder to Jon Baldwin, and a 13-yarder to Mike Cruz. Graham added what would have been his fourth reception of the day, which netted a first down, but USF was called for defensive holding. After Cruz' gain of 13, which took Pitt to the USF 29, Lewis gained seven yards up the middle, to end the third quarter. The next play, his 17th carry of the day, Lewis ran up the middle and bounced off two would-be tacklers, and into the end zone for a 22-yard touchdown. Instead of giving up a 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown as the third quarter ran out, Pitt effectively ran out the third quarter, then scored seven seconds into the fourth quarter.
If there was one adjustment made that helped Sunseri, and helped the offense be more productive, it was using the pass to set up the run. Pitt wanted to establish the run game in the first half, and it was. It wasn't leading to any scores. When Pitt came out throwing in the second half, Lewis and Graham more productive, but more importantly Pitt was getting touchdowns.
"The biggest adjustment (made at halftime) was just starting off with the pass," Sunseri said. "We were trying to establish the running game in the first half. We wanted to stay consistent with that."
The Bulls had one more chance to tie up the score after Dan Hutchins missed a 43-yard field goal attempt with 1:31 left in the game. Pitt had an impressive drive leading up to that field goal, going 64 yards on 12 plays, while taking 5:53 off the clock. Graham ran the ball for the first five plays of the drive, totaling 24 yards. Sunseri rushed for 18 yards on a quarterback sneak. Even with the missed field goal, that play was big in converting the first down, extending the drive and taking a little more momentum away from USF.
"We felt like we could capture the edge (of the line)," Sunseri said of his big run. "I was telling the coaches that I was open, and they had trust in me to call it. I just wanted to make sure that I got on the perimeter. I stayed in bounds to keep the clock moving. That was my true objective on that play."
On the final series of the day, the Bulls were facing a 3rd-and-14 when Reed was called for his fourth pass interference call of the day, giving the Bulls another first down. All five pass interference calls that went against Pitt were on third downs. Reed intercepted a B.J. Daniels pass at the Pitt 20 as time expired, clinching the win for Pitt. It was a hard fought win that could have slipped away. After the game, coaches and players seem to have appreciated this win the most of all the wins this season.
"We had to win this game coming in," linebacker Max Gruder said. "We're out of free passes. If we lose this game, we're going to have to start depending on other people to get to where we want to go, which our ultimate goal is to win a (Big East) championship. We still control our own destiny. We have to keep winning. We said, ‘Great win,' but that stops tonight. We have to get ready for West Virginia."