The Big East is in the middle of an expansion project since losing two of its members, Pittsburgh and Syracuse, to the ACC. #16 South Florida has faced its own adversity in the midst of the Big East expansion talk last week when allegations arose from the Orlando Sentinel accusing USF President Judy Genshaft of blocking Central Florida from joining the Big East Conference, a claim Genshaft has since denied. USF suffered a personal loss earlier this season from the passing of former Athletic Director Lee Roy Selmon from complications from a stroke suffered on September 2nd.
Now with a short week, the only undefeated team in the Big East, South Florida, opens conference play Thursday night at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh against the Panthers. Pitt has won the last three meetings and holds a 5-3 edge over the Bulls all time.
A team traditionally known for their defense, USF ranks second in the conference with 45.5 points per game and first in the conference and 11th nationally in total offense with 539.5 yards per game. Last week against UTEP, QB BJ Daniels was 14-for-24 for 202 yards and two touchdowns, and added another score and 130 yards on the ground in the 52-24 victory over the Miners. Daniels has played well this season with eight touchdown passes to one interception and is second in the conference behind WVU’s Geno Smith with 1,071 passing yards. The Bulls defense allowed 339 of total offense to UTEP with 244 yards of that allowed in the air, and sit mid-conference in defensive statistics. South Florida has allowed only Notre Dame to rush for over 100 yards (126 yards) this season.
After a close loss to Iowa in week three, Pittsburgh led ND 12-7 heading into the fourth quarter, but allowed QB Tommy Rees to go 8-for-8 on its final drive, capping it off with a touchdown pass to Tyler Eifert, who also caught the 2pt conversion throw. Pitt QB Gino Sunseri completed 22-of-30 passes and a touchdown, while RB Ray Graham had 124 total yards; 81 rushing and eight receptions for 43 yards. The Panther defense allowed 398 yards of total offense from the Fighting Irish, 182 yards on the ground. Pittsburgh has only held one opponent, Maine, to less than 100 yards rushing (37) and will have their hands full on the run-happy Bulls, who average 228 yards per game.
The Panthers have the advantage on special teams with their kickoff and punt return teams ranking third in the Big East at 22.5 and 7.7 yards per return. USF coverage team struggled against UTEP, allowing 251 yards on eight kickoff returns including a 67 yard return from Vernon Frazier that set up the Miners’ final score.
Head coach Skip Holtz called special teams coverage South Florida’s Achilles heel, and is not opposed to playing defensive starters on the coverage team. Special teams take another hit with punt returner Terrence Mitchell out with a concussion he sustained Saturday.
The Bulls offensive line will be put to the test against a Pitt defensive front that features Brandon Lindsey who earned second team All-Big East in 2010 and Max Gruder who leads the Big East this year with 35 tackles.
Pittsburgh will undoubtedly look to continue their win-streak over South Florida, but the Bulls’ offense may be too good this year for anyone in the conference to quiet, especially as Daniels continues to make good decisions with the football, a stark contrast from last year when he threw 13 interceptions to 11 touchdowns.
[4-0 (0-0) Big East] vs. [2-2 (0-0) Big East]
Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, Pa
(65,050 – Natural Grass)
Thursday, September 29 • 8 p.m. • ESPN/ESPN3D
ESPN — Rece Davis, Craig James, Jesse Palmer and Jenn Brown
ESPN3D — Dave Lamont, Tim Brown and Ray Bentley