South Florida coach Skip Holtz thinks quarterback B.J. Daniels has some "growing and improving he can do" as the Bulls look at the stretch run of the 2010 season, but he also is very happy with the way the sophomore has responded in recent games after hitting some rough spots early on.
And the coach knows that Daniels will be a big key as the Bulls look to put themselves in a contender's role in the Big East when Pittsburgh visits next.
"As it is with most teams, as your quarterback goes, your football team goes," Holtz said. "When you look at where we are right now, and some of the things we're doing, a lot of it is built around B.J., who's one of our better athletes on this team."
There never has been much question about Daniels' raw ability since he was thrown into a starting role early last year as a redshirt freshman when Matt Grothe was injured.
Daniels hasn't always been able to harness that talent in a productive manner this season, however. He threw key interceptions in early losses to Florida and West Virginia and couldn't generate much in the way of offense in a loss to Syracuse. But he came up big against Cincinnati to start to turn things around. He has completed 34 of his 52 pass attempts over the past three games with only one interception.
The result has been a three-game winning streak that has USF bowl-eligible at 6-3 overall and in third place in the Big East at 3-2.
"He went through some criticism with the interceptions in the Florida game, and the West Virginia game, missing some opportunities in the Syracuse game," Holtz said, "and I really think he rolled up his sleeves and said, 'All right, what do I have to do?'
"I give him a lot of credit. He didn't throw his arms up, he didn't make excuses, he didn't point his fingers at other people. He said that, not me. He said, 'I want to be a quarterback, and what do I have to do to get it done?' He's really been dialed in. He's done a great job."
--South Florida is looking to end a two-game losing streak in the series against Pittsburgh. The Panthers won 26-21 in 2008, the last time the teams played in Tampa, and by a 41-14 count last year.
--Turnover margin plays in Pitt's favor. The Panthers are plus-2 on the year in takeaway-giveaways, and the Bulls are minus-3.
--The three-game winning streak has the Bulls off to their best five-game start in Big East play at 3-2. The Bulls started off 3-2 in their first season in 2005 and did it again in 2006. Both times they finished with 4-3 conference marks.
SERIES HISTORY: Pittsburgh leads USF 4-3 (last meeting, 2009, 41-14 Pittsburgh).
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: USF ranks near the bottom of the Big East in total offense (314.6 yards per game) but has been fairly effective in the running game (151.9 ypg). Only UConn (156.7 ypg), however, passes for less yardage than the Bulls, who come in at 162.7. But when QB B.J. Daniels avoids interceptions, he still can be very effective. Defenses still have to be aware of the threat he poses running the football, whether on scrambles or designed plays. He has 240 yards rushing to go with his 1,325 yards passing. One big problem has been on third-down conversions. The Bulldogs have converted only 29 of 102 (28.4 percent, last in the conference).
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: USF ranks only sixth in the Big East in total defense, giving up 328.9 ypg, but the Bulls are effective in the red zone. They are second in the league in limiting opponents to 78.6 percent success and have held them to just 13 touchdowns on 28 trips inside their 20-yard line. DE Craig Marshall is among the Big East sack leaders but is out with a foot injury.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Everyone keeps asking me, what's your opinion in this league, who's the best team, etc. Let us get through it once before I'm ready to comment." -- Coach Skip Holtz, who is in his first season at USF.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Pittsburgh at South Florida, Nov. 20 -- Pittsburgh opened the door to the Big East title just a crack when it lost to Connecticut in its last game. That left the Panthers 3-1 in conference play ahead of Syracuse (4-2) and USF (3-2). Overall, Pitt is only 5-4 with losses to Utah, Miami and Notre Dame in addition to the Huskies.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Avoid the key turnover. QB B.J. Daniels has been known to throw ill-advised passes to give opponents unexpected opportunities, so he needs to stay under control. USF's defense faces a challenge from Pitt's two-pronged rushing attack of Dion Lewis and Ray Graham.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
WR/KR Lindsey Lamar -- Don't go to the concession stand or refrigerator when USF is receiving a kickoff. Lamar has two kickoff returns for touchdowns, including a 100-yarder in the last game against Louisville. His two returns for scores in one season are a first for a USF player. His return average of 30.8 ranks first in the Big East and third nationally.
WR Dontavia Bogan -- Bogan misplayed one ball in the win over Louisville but generally has been USF's most reliable pass-catcher and virtually the only threat the Bulls have at wideout. He leads the team with 32 receptions for 484 yards and four touchdowns.
DE Patrick Hampton -- With senior Craig Marshall out with a foot injury, Hampton stepped up with a solid game against Louisville. He needs to duplicate that effort. He has two sacks among his 19 tackles.
--CB Mistral Raymond (leg) is likely to return after sitting out the win over Louisville.
--S JaQuez Jenkins, a backup, is doubtful because of an ankle injury.
--USF is hopeful of getting DE Craig Marshall (foot) back for the Nov. 27 game at Miami, according to a report in the Tampa Tribune.