Pitt football-Central Florida presser

The University of Pittsburgh football team takes their 5-1 record to Florida on Friday to play the 2-3 Central Florida Golden Knights. PantherDigest.com senior writer Dale Grdnic attended Head Coach Dave Wannstedt's press conference today and he reports on the latest concerning the Panthers upcoming game. Read on for details.

PITTSBURGH -- The University of Pittsburgh's football team is on the verge of being ranked in two national polls and has a game against already-ranked Rutgers on the horizon, but don't tell Tyler Palko that the Panthers are looking toward anything but what's in front of them.

Pitt's fifth-year senior quarterback believed that the Panthers (5-1) have come too far this season to look past the game against Conference USA foe Central Florida (2-3) Friday night at 8 at the Florida Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Fla. The game will be nationally televised by ESPN.

"Who might look past this?'' Palko asked Monday and then answered. "No one. Not on our team. We're not that type of football team. We've had to fight to get five wins, and by no means are we a top-five program yet. So, we need to come out and play football and not sit here and worry about who we have next or who we had before. That's how we got five wins.

"We're just worried about one week. I've talked about one-week seasons before, and this is it. It's Central Florida. We don't have Rutgers this week. We have Central Florida, and we need to continue to focus on this week. It would be silly if we were looking at Rutgers. That's something that no one has ever talked about, except those people who have said this is a trap game.''

Pitt received votes in the Associated Press writers' poll and is 32nd with six points. The Panthers are 29th in the USA Today coaches' poll with 21 points. Even though Pitt might move into the top 25 with a win against Central Florida, Palko said that wasn't on anyone's mind, either.

"No, (being ranked) isn't a goal,'' Palko said. "We just need to keep winning. All that stuff comes by winning. We couldn't control not being ranked, and we can't control being ranked. "The only thing we can control is to keep playing football and to keep winning. All that other stuff is going to come, but right now it's something that you can talk about. But it's just another distraction to us.''

Palko and redshirt junior defensive end Chris McKillop, the Big East defensive player of the week after his big performance at Syracuse, believed that the Panthers are only focused on Central Florida. It's especially critical because Pitt is playing on a short week with the Friday game. The Golden Knights have not played since winning 23-22, Oct. 4, at Marshall.

"It's kind of tough being on a short week,'' McKillop said. "You just have to trust that everybody will come in here and learn their stuff. ... But we've been very focused so far this season, and I'm confident we won't look past this game. We can't afford to do that, because every game's important.''

Second-year Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said the Panthers already broke down the video from the Syracuse game and are moving forward to the Central Florida game. UCF will be just another tough road game for Pitt, as far as Wannstedt and his staff are concerned.

"We know going down there, playing on the road, with all the players we have from Florida, that this will be a very important game,'' Wannstedt said. "We will approach this game no differently than we approached last week (at Syracuse) and the Cincinnati (road) game.

"I think our guys have done a very good job this year of being able to deal with the travel and change of schedules and everything that goes along with that. They've been able to keep their focus on the job at hand. That will be a big deal for us this week.''

While junior wideout Derek Kinder missed some time against the Orange after taking a big hit in the first quarter, he later returned and finished the game. Wannstedt did not believe it was a concussion and said Pitt's leading receiver should be ready for the Central Florida game.

The Panthers depth chart still took a hit last week, though, as safety Eric Thatcher was injured during practice and will need ankle surgery. He will miss the remaining regular-season games and could be back by a bowl game, but he is expected to return for spring drills.

"They're saying he'll be back in six weeks, but who knows?'' Wannstedt said. "Mike Phillips will take his place. Mike needs to play. He'll be the first one to tell you that he didn't play as well (at Syracuse) as he's capable of playing, but it's because he hasn't played much.''

After missing two-thirds of last season with an ankle injury, the ensuing surgery also kept him out of spring drills. He struggled throughout training camp as well, and has not played significantly this season until facing the Orange. Redshirt freshmen Shane Murray and Irvan Brown are backup safeties. Frosh Elijah Fields is also in the mix.

"We do have some depth at safety,'' Wannstedt said. "We don't have much experience. We're talking about redshirt freshmen, both of them. ... Irv got some playing time and Shane Murray was our dime defensive back, as we call it, and got some playing time as well.''

Along with McKillop, who had 2.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovered, LaRod Stephens-Howling also was honored by the Big East. A career-best 221 rushing yards on 21 carries earned the sophomore tailback offensive player of the week honors.

"(McKillop) has worked hard to get better,'' Wannstedt said. "He came up with some big plays. I think the biggest thing with all these players is being consistent with it. When you can do things consistently and play at that level week in and week out, that's when you've kind of arrived. "So, I'm pleased with the progress, but we've got to find a way to go out and perform at that level (every) week.''

While Wannstedt praised Stephens-Howling for his performance at Syracuse, the head coach said the running game is still a work in progress.

"I hope it's there this week,'' Wannstedt said. "We're going to work on it and continue to work at it until we do it consistently, week after week. Then, I think we'll start thinking we made some progress.''

Wannstedt noted that while the offensive line has shown tremendous improvement, Stephens-Howling is finally healthy after a slow start.

"Having your starting tailback is going to make the running game better,'' Wannstedt said. "The philosophy won't change. We're still going to be balanced. We went into Syracuse, and the first play of the game was a pass.''

Wannstedt also praised the performance by sophomore nose tackle Rashaad Duncan and the defensive line.

"They (Syracuse) were committed to the running the football,'' Wannstedt said. "They had run the football pretty well against everybody and to hold them under 100 yards up there, that was big for our team. That has kind of been our weakness, you might say, on defense.

"Having the ball handed to us a little bit in the running game. So that was a big challenge for our guys and they responded well.''

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