Pitt will face its toughest challenge of the season when the No. 14 USF Bulls come to town, led by quarterback B.J. Daniels. Daniels is making a strong case for Big East Player of the Year consideration. The junior quarterback has led the Bulls to the top passing offense in the Big East. In four games, he's completed 82-of-124 (66.1%) of his passes for 1,071 yards, 8 touchdown passes and just one interception.
"He's been very elusive naturally in the pocket and very patient," Pitt head coach Todd Graham said this week. "He has made a lot of big plays and can hurt you by buying time with his legs."
If Daniels gets the opportunity to buy time with his legs, he's proved he can be just as dangerous running the football. He's added another 215 yards on the ground with two rushing scores—far and away the most by any Big East quarterback.
"They're a big read-zone team and (Daniels) does a great job with that," Graham added. "He also does a good job with protecting himself and you can tell he is experienced. Our job is to confuse him and keep him in check this Thursday.
"When Daniels starts to scramble, we need to make sure we match up the routes in our zone and don't give up any cheap plays. He's very different than anyone we have faced up to this point."
Interestingly, Pitt has had similar concerns about Daniels heading into the last two matchups. In 2010—when Daniels took over for an injured Matt Grothe that season—Pitt limited the highly-touted freshman to 4-of-8 completions, 54 yards and two interceptions as the Panthers limited the Bulls' turns on offense. Last year in Tampa, with Daniels adjusting to a new offense under Skip Holtz, he completed 11-of-16 passes for 142 yards and a touchdown. He was sacked twice, and held to negative rushing yards.
This year will be a whole new challenge. Daniels is showing signs of the experience he's built up since becoming a starter as a freshman. He's also got a year in the new system under Holtz. Since last year's Pitt win in Tampa, the Bulls have won six of their last seven games.
As a defense, Daniels concerns several members of the Pitt defense. Myles Caragein has played against Daniels twice already. Even though his team has gotten the best of Daniels in the past, he feels he's going up against a whole new quarterback this time around. Last week against UTEP, Daniels rushed for 130 yards, including a 71-yard touchdown.
"That's a big challenge, especially because he's one of those players that's either going to take a sack, or he's going to take it to the house," Caragein said. "Especially for the d-lineman. We're talking about containing him in the pocket. It's a big thing for us to not let him get off the edge."
While the front seven has a responsibility to not let Daniels get out in the edge, the defensive backs have the biggest worry. It's not just about pass coverage from their standpoint. Based on some of the runs Daniels has had this year, they too have to worry about him in run support.
"This year, he's very consistent with his arm and his legs," Holley said. "For the secondary, we just have to stay in coverage. If we bite up on it when he's running—and he throws it—he's going to head for the home run play. We really have to stay in coverage and key in on him."
DANIELS RUSHING TOTALS THROUGH FOUR GAMES
At Notre Dame 12-37
Ball State 5-14
Florida A&M 6-34, TD
UTEP 15-130, TD