Pitt football-Central Florida preview

The University of Pittsburgh football team is set to take on Conference USA powerhouse Central Florida on Friday night. The game will be broadcast nationally on ESPN at the Florida Citrus Bowl in Orlando, FL. PantherDigest.com Senior Writer Dale Grdnic provides Panther fans with a preview of the game.

PITTSBURGH -- Some might say that the University of Pittsburgh's football team hasn't accomplished anything this season, since it hasn't beaten a ranked team and has not yet played the top teams in the Big East.

But the Panthers (5-1) can reach a milestone against Conference USA foe Central Florida (2-3) in an ESPN national broadcast Friday at 8 at the Florida Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Fla. A victory would give Pitt its best start since quarterback Dan Marino led the 1982 squad to a 7-0 stretch.

"All that stuff's for you guys to talk about,'' current Pitt quarterback Tyler Palko said. "We just want to win the game because it's the next one on our schedule. (But) the game's going to be on national television, so we better bring our A game or we could get surprised.''

Palko and Pitt's offense will have to deal with a UCF defense that is led by right cornerback Joe Burnett and middle linebacker Corey Hogue with 34 and 32 tackles, respectively. Burnett has come up to make 26 solo stops, including two behind the line, while Hogue has 16 solo tackles and 2.5 sacks.

Central Florida has forced nine turnovers with strong safety Sha'reff Rashad the main culprit. He leads the team with three interceptions and also has a forced fumble. Rashad has 23 tackles with 12 solo stops.

"They're athletic, fast and a lot better than what their stats present on paper,'' Palko said. "Some bad breaks have hit them, but they're a good defense. And they'll present some problems for us with their speed.''

Offensively, the Golden Knights are easier to figure out. They have two backs at 4.7 yards per carry. Kevin Smith leads with 403 yards rushing and two touchdowns, while Jason Peters has 237 yards and one score.

"These kids were both highly recruited kids,'' Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "I remember talking about Smith, and they were waiting on his academics. A lot of schools were interested in him, but I think he signed with Central Florida in June.''

UCF actually has three Smiths in its backfield. Kevin is the starting tailback, while Phillip is his backup. Shane Smith is the backup fullback to Peters. The quarterback is Steven Moffett, who is in his third year as a starter. He has completed 54.1 percent of his passes for 874 yards and six touchdowns with three interceptions. Backup Kyle Israel has played in every game and is 6-for-11 for 80 yards with no touchdowns and no picks.

"He's been very efficient ... and knows the system,'' Wannstedt said. "He's an athlete. They do movement stuff with him. You'll see him on the bootleg and the sprints, and ... we have to do a better job with that.''

Redshirt junior defensive end Chris McKillop had his best game last week at Syracuse and hopes it carries over against Central Florida.

"You get in a rhythm,'' McKillop said, "and that's how I feel right now. ... Coach Wannstedt tells us that the best pass-rushers always keep their feet moving. That's the reason I had some success against Syracuse.

"I kept my feet moving toward the quarterback, and that helped me get to him, get some pressure and get some sacks. But the whole defensive line has improved. I just hope we can keep it going this week.''

McKillop also said must contend with 6-foot-4, 275-pound tight end Mike Merritt, who is a solid blocker but not much of a pass-catcher. When Moffett goes to the air he usually looks for wideout Mike Walker. He has 33 catches for 405 yards and three scores.

Wideout Javid James is next at 12 catches for 156 yards and one score. The only other receiver of note is Willie Thornton with six catches for 114 yards and two touchdowns. He has the longest reception with a 37-yarder, but UCF only has three completions for more than 30 yards. Wannstedt also said Central Florida's offensive line was similar to any in the Big East with an average nearly 6-3, 300 pounds across the front.

"I think the defense, and especially the line, is playing better every week,'' McKillop said. "Coach Wannstedt said every good defense has a swagger, and Coach Rhoads says he can see it with every practice we have.

"We have fun, but we have a job to do. And we get the job done, so he's seeing that swagger building up week after week. (But) we'll have our work cut out for us this week, because they're solid up front.''

And if the Panthers can handle Central Florida, they'll have at least one major accomplishment so far this season.

* While Palko has led or been among the national leaders in passing efficiency this season, he still believes improvement can be made.

"I just want to hit the big plays when they come,'' Palko said. "We called three plays downfield in the Syracuse game. They blitzed on one of them, and we hit our hot route. They played cover-two to one, and we scrambled and hit Steve (Buches) with a flip pass. The other big play was to Darrell (Strong).

"The linebacker's back was turned, and I threw it away from the safety. It looked like it was double-covered, but I thought it was a good decision. (The pass) was away from the guy that had a chance to intercept.''

* Pitt's biggest offensive plays at Syracuse were two runs of 30-plus yards by TB LaRod Stephens-Howling and his 70-yard TD run, and Palko said thing just happened to time up that day. Wannstedt had a different reason.

"LaRod is finally healthy,'' Wannstedt said. "We're getting better running the ball, but we need to continue to improve this week.''

* This is the first meeting between the two teams, but Pitt played in the Citrus Bowl twice before. It beat North Carolina State 34-19 in the 2001 Tangerine Bowl, but lost to the Wolfpack 30-17 in a 1978 bowl matchup.

* The Panthers last game against a Conference USA team was in 2004. They beat South Florida 43-14 in Tampa, Fla. to clinch a bid to the Fiesta Bowl. It was the Bulls final season before joining the Big East.

* Senior MLB H.B. Blades was named to CBS SportsLine.com's "Halfway All-America Team.'' A two-time first-team All-Big East selection, Blades is eyeing national accolades this year as well. Through six games, he ranks sixth nationally and first in the Big East with 11.33 tackles per game and continues to climb Pitt's all-time list with 68 total stops this year. Blades has 354 career stops to rank eighth, but he should crack the top three by season's end. He also is on watch lists for the Dick Butkus Award (top linebacker), Rotary Lombardi Award (lineman-linebacker), Bronko Nagurski Trophy (defensive player) and Ronnie Lott Trophy (defensive player).

* With Blades leading the way, the Panthers defense ranks fifth nationally in turnovers gained (16) and in the Top 25 of four additional categories, including pass efficiency defense (19th, 103.2 rating), scoring defense (20th, 14.3 ppg), total defense (24th, 283.17 yards/game) and pass defense (24th, 168.0 yards/game).

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