Pitt Better Prepared For South Florida

For several weeks, Pitt football coach Dave Wannstedt has talked about the team's fragile psyche, appearing to be dejected even when leading close games at halftime or trailing close contests, but that attitude has steadily changed.

Pittsburgh, 3-1 going into its game against 10th-ranked South Florida (5-0) Thursday night at 7:30 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., came back to beat Buffalo, Iowa and Syracuse in consecutive games. The Panthers are in a much better frame of mind for this crucial Big East contest, and Wannstedt was hopeful that the program finally has turned the corner.

"We'll find out,'' Wannstedt said. "This will be a great opportunity for us, a great challenge this week. This will test us in areas where we haven't been tested -- the talent level of South Florida, the atmosphere and everything that goes along with it. So, it'll be a good test for us, and we need it.''

In three-plus seasons under Wannstedt, Pitt has been on a roller-coaster ride. Big wins, let alone those that involved a comeback, were few and far between. The Panthers were 1-9 against Division I-A competition going into the Navy game last fall, but they have gone 6-4 in the 10 games since with wins against two ranked teams -- Cincinnati and No. 2 West Virginia -- and comebacks against Iowa and at Syracuse.

Wannstedt noted that while he didn't like it that Pitt has started slowly, for the most part, this season, the Panthers' makeup is such -- in character, talent and conditioning -- that they have the ability to stage such comebacks now.

"I think we had great leadership back then, and I still think that,'' Wannstedt said. "But we also have a few more guys who can make plays in clutch situations, especially at the end in games. ... It may be since that time that our players are more confident and comfortable that we can do it.

"There's not that panic in the game. I think we're a little more even keel, but we want to be playing our best games by the end of the season.''

South Florida likely is the most-talented team Pitt will play this season. The Bulls clearly are the class team in the Big East thus far, but fifth-year senior middle linebacker Scott McKillop believed that the Panthers are a much different team than it was when the season began.

"I think our team took another step forward in our maturity,'' McKillop said. "We very easily could have shut down against Syracuse and not performed as well as we could have with the way things went early in the game. But we faced some adversity, reacted correctly and won the game.

"So, that definitely was a sign of maturity for our team. ... South Florida is a great team, national television, a national spotlight, it's an opportunity for us to go out there and show everybody what Big East football is all about. Hopefully, we can erase some doubts still in everybody's minds since that first game.''

Pitt is on a three-game winning streak since that opening-game loss to Bowling Green, but South Florida is "hitting on all cylinders, too,'' McKillop added. So, if Iowa was a statement game for the Panthers, what would this one be?

"We knew last week that every game is for the Big East championship, so that's going to continue with every game,'' senior tailback LaRod Stephens-Howling said. "Every one is for the Big East championship from now on out. They're one of the top teams in the Big East that everybody is talking about right now, so it's definitely another big statement game for us.

"There definitely is a lot of confidence with this team right now as well. The win that we just had adds a boost to that. And just being ready to come out on a short week and being ready to practice on a short week and not hanging our heads because we could have had a loss last week. ... So, we came in (to practice) after a win and everybody's ready to go.''

Wannstedt used mousetraps as motivation last week, noting that Pitt can't get caught in a trap at Syracuse and take the Orange lightly, but what did the coach have in mind for the Panthers this week for the South Florida game.

"If you need a theme for this week's game, you might as well not show up,'' Stephens-Howling said. "Everybody better be ready to play. We know it's going to be a tough game. And we have to be ready. ... We know it's going to be a great atmosphere for them, being at home, and their fans are real rowdy.

"But we know what it's like down there, and we're used to those types of situations. We have a pretty much veteran team, so we'll be ready for that. There are definitely a lot of people doubting us, going into this game against a high-ranked opponent, but we've been there before. West Virginia was ranked No. 2 when we played them, but we're ready to play.''

Wannstedt noted that while junior right offensive tackle Joe Thomas injured an ankle against Syracuse and did not practice Sunday, he was expected to be back this week and ready for South Florida.

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