BY NATALIE BIGLEY
After a huge win against previously ranked Rutgers, Pitt needs one win to become bowl-eligible.
The only thing that stands between the 5-6 Panthers and that opportunity is a game at South Florida (3-8) this week.
“Before all that bowl talk, we’ve got to lock in and go.” Pitt coach Paul Chryst said at Monday’s press conference.
Of South Florida’s three victories, only one – Connecticut - came in Big East Conference play.
But Chryst said his Panthers are not sleeping on the Bulls. There is too much at stake.
“There’s not one game that you go into and say, ‘Boy, this is going to be easy,’” Chryst said. “We’ve got to go earn it.”
Despite a coaching carousel in recent years, the Panthers have made it to a bowl game every year since 2008. Their most recent trip was to the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham, Ala. where the Panthers fell to Southern Methodist University, 28-6. It marked the second consecutive year Pitt played in Birmingham.
“I think it’s great that we’re playing for something very significant,” Chryst said.
Pitt may only have five wins, but statistically it looks more like an eight- or nine-win team.
For starters, the Panthers have only turned the ball over once in the last six games. They are tied with Ohio for fewest turnovers (eight) in the country.
Part of the credit for the efficient offense can be given to oft-maligned quarterback Tino Sunseri. His strong season continued against Rutgers and he was honored as the Big East Offensive Player of the Week on Monday.
He currently ranks second in the Big East and 20th nationally in pass efficiency with a strong 154.56 rating.
Chryst said the growth in Sunseri is the result of a culmination of things. One of these things is experience in a Chryst’s system.
“He understands the importance of taking care of the football,” Chryst said. “It comes from experience.”
Another shining star for Pitt’s offense is running back Ray Graham. He is on the cusp of a 1,000-yard season and finishing his Pitt career as one of the most productive running backs in school history.
But Chryst was quick to point out this accomplishment is not only an achievement for Graham, but also for the entire Pitt team.
“In a team sport, anything an individual does is as much acknowledgement of the team as it is the individual,” Chryst said. “No one does it on their own. But it’s still a significant milestone. He’s come along way from the guy limping in the spring.”
Heading into Saturday’s game, Graham needs only 52 yards to reach 1,000 yards on the season. He was on track to get to that last year before a right knee injury against Connecticut ended his season. Graham was the nation’s second-leading rusher through seven games, finishing 2011 with 958 yards.
He is already second in all-purpose yards at Pitt with 4,849. Tony Dorsett tops that list with 7,117 yards.
Senior offensive lineman Chris Jacobson said it feels nice to be a driving force behind that record.
“It takes all 11 (to get that record),” Jacobson said. “You can’t do it without the guys up front- the tight ends, the wide receivers – and that is something exciting to have in your back pocket.”
Pitt’s offensive line has struggled to find its identity from week to week, coming up huge against then No. 3 Notre Dame four weeks ago, but then a week later experiencing a hiccup gainst Connecticut.
Against Rutgers, the line was solid once again.
“Once we start clicking, that’s when we get our momentum and we go with it,” Jacobson said.
“I feel like one of our struggles is when we’re down we have to be able to pick each other up and handle the adversity.”
The Panthers are unsure if they will have to play this week without wide receiver Devin Street. He left last week’s game early after being the target of a big hit by Rutgers defensive back Lorenzo Waters in the second quarter.
Chryst said that Street is feeling much better and will hopefully be cleared to play this week. The Panthers should know more about his status after practice tomorrow.
Street has been a valuable asset for Pitt’s offense this season. He is one of the Big East’s best receivers, ranking second in the conference in receptions per game (5.45 average) and receiving yards per game (74.55 average).
Chryst also announced on Monday morning that redshirt freshman defensive back Steve Williams has been dismissed from the team for disciplinary reasons. Also linebacker Jason Frimpong and defensive back Roderick Ryles, both redshirt freshmen, have left the team and been given permission to transfer. All three players were part of former Pitt head coach Todd Graham’s recruiting class.