Murray Much Closer

There are those who believe that Pitt's defensive improvement in the second half at Syracuse was a direct result of redshirt junior weak-side linebacker Shane Murray's return to the lineup.

Out since the final week in training camp with a right knee strain, Shane Murray replaced fifth-year senior Austin Ransom in the second half, and Pittsburgh shut down the Orange offense almost immediately. Murray didn't record a tackle, but he clearly made a difference. Syracuse couldn't run whenever it wanted.

"As soon as I got out there, my adrenaline started going, and I didn't even realize that I had a knee brace on and was coming off a knee injury,'' Murray said. "So, you just forget about it and can't let it bother you. If you do ... bad things can happen to you, and you can have a setback. So, I tried to avoid that and not think about it when I was on the field.

"(And) in the second half, we just picked it up on defense. It wasn't because of me. I just wanted to go out and do my part, but we all buckled down because it was a close game. We wanted to do better and limit their first downs and their big plays. We got them four times in the second half, 4 of 5 times, to go three and out. And that was a huge key in the game, a big reason we won.''

Murray, who started all 12 games on the weak side for Pitt last season, played just 15 snaps against Syracuse. It wasn't as many as he wanted to play, but he'll take it. And maybe he'll get more when the Panthers visit South Florida Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla.

"Sure, I'm happy that people think I played a part in the turnaround,'' Murray added. "But the other 10 guys did a great job, and we have to keep it up against South Florida because they can put up a lot of points. ... I feel good now, and I'm ready to get more reps. Hopefully, the coaches feel the same way, and I can get more snaps and make more plays this week.

"So, that's what I hope to do. I'm feeling pretty good right now, and I've been rehabbing every day. They watch me practice every week, so I have to keep practicing hard to get ready to go and ready to get more reps. So, I hope I have a good couple days to get ready for South Florida.''

Murray believed the difference for Pitt in the fourth quarterback was due to its superior conditioning. That's why the Panthers have played well during the fourth quarter during their three-game winning streak.

Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt agreed, but was noncommittal on Murray's status.

"We're trying to be smart with Shane but at the same time we're trying to get him back in the action,'' Wannstedt said. "He's a good football player. He's started a lot games for us here and he'll play this week. At the same time, Austin Ransom continues to do a great job.

"He's making plays and getting better. Shane will play more this week and that will help, because Austin plays on every special teams. With the weather being hot down there in Florida, depth will be a big factor. For our defensive line, this could be a good chance to show our depth at that position.''

Fifth-year senior middle linebacker Scott McKillop had fellow grad student Adam Gunn play beside him just one half before he was lost for the season with a fractured neck vertebra, while Murray has been out all season. He was happy to get Murray back, but praised Ransom equally as much.

"I think that regardless of whether Austin or Shane is in there,'' McKillop said, "we're comfortable with both. Shane has more experience, but Austin is playing well. And we're confident in both of them. (But) if we go down there and get off to another slow start on defense, we'll get behind real quick.

"It'll be an ugly game real fast. So, we've got to go out there and perform well in all three phases right away. ... One area where they hurt us the past couple years is on fake punts. They had two down there and one here last year, so we have to execute on high levels in every phase.''

Murray was among Pitt's leaders with 38 solo tackles and 60 total stops last year, his first full season as a starter, along with three sacks and a pass breakup.

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