After a shaky start, however, Bill Stull and No. 24 Pittsburgh appear to be back on track after three straight comeback wins and the lead in the Big East at 2-0.
"I think Billy, his progress is definitely moving forward,'' Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "He's right where our whole team is right now. We still have a lot of work to do. We still need all to get a lot better. I say that from a positive standpoint, an exciting standpoint.
"There's so much more potential. We've got to keep working at it, keep the right attitudes, keep our feet on the ground and not let our hunger or mindset or attitude change. If we do that, we'll be fine.''
Wannstedt pointed out, as he has throughout this season, that Stull basically is a first-year starter. Sure, he went through training camp and the first game week as one last fall, but played slightly more than one half before a serious thumb injury needed season-ending surgery. So, everything he faces this season is still a new experience.
"Every week is kind of a new adventure for him,'' Wannstedt said. "He started one (home) game last year, then three home games (this year), then up at Syracuse in front of 15,000 or 20,000 people.
"(So), this was the first national TV game, under the lights, on the road in front of 50,000 people. We had crowd noise at practice, trying to check at the line. There were a lot of things Billy experienced on Thursday night that he had never experienced since coming to Pitt.''
Stull has completed nearly 58 percent of his passes for 1,028 yards and three touchdowns with three interceptions this season, but USF clearly was his best game. He was 16-for-27 for 228 yards and a 52-yard scoring toss to freshman wideout Jonathan Baldwin.
"I settled down after the first couple series and got into a little rhythm,'' Stull said. "Of course, some of those passes could have given me more yards. But those pass-interference penalties, they were big plays, too.
"For a quarterback, taking a chance on the deep ball can get you a big play, a catch or interference, but my job obviously isn't to throw an interception or even an incompletion. So, we talked about taking our shots downfield and being aggressive, and it worked out for us. J.B. went up and made some plays.''
Baldwin basically replaced Derek Kinder in this game as Stull's go-to receiver for big plays, because the fifth-year senior wideout was bumped up and didn't play much after the first quarter. After two brief possessions to open the game, Stull was able to connect with Baldwin for the long bomb.
"We struggled the first couple series, so that (long touchdown) to J.B. couldn't have come at a better time,'' Stull said. "That boosted the whole team. When they made that call, I just tried to put it up there and out there where he could get it. I've said a couple times that our guys up front played a heckuva game.
"No skill guy could do anything without them having a good game, and they're really tough. So, that allowed us to make certain calls, and the coaches wanted to take a couple shots downfield every quarter. The skill guys got some big eyes after that, but we stuck with our game plan and got the job done.''
Pitt's game plan still is to run the ball, primarily with sophomore tailback LeSean McCoy, so the Panthers' quick scoring drives against USF were somewhat of a surprise. Still, they pounded the ball in the second half and controlled the clock.
"South Florida's game usually is to control the clock, but the big key drives that we've had ... taking 5-6 minutes off the block, have been great for us,'' Stull said. "When we had that three-play drive and scored in 30 seconds, we were joking about it that we scored too fast.
"But we have to capitalize on long drives and score off them every time. The seven-minute drives, we need to get six and not three. (But) the big plays, you can kind of take the heart out of the defense when you do something like that.
"Against J.B., after he had the touchdown, they didn't want to give up another one,'' Stull added. "So, they probably figured that an interference penalty was better than giving up a touchdown. But penalties are big plays, too.''
When Pitt's passing game faltered, at least it has had McCoy to fall back on.
"When Baldwin made that big catch for a touchdown, that really opened things up for me,'' McCoy said. "And Billy, you have to realize that this was just his ... fifth game starting, but he's getting better and better every game.
"He's getting more comfortable, and he has an awesome presence in the huddle. He gets in there and motivates us. The checks he makes, the audibles, he's definitely getting more comfortable in there and playing a lot better.''
And as Stull improves, Pitt should be even more successful.
Stull Making Strides
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