TAMPA-For two straight seasons, quarterback Tyler Palko and the Pittsburgh offense gave the USF defense fits.
Saturday the Bulls returned the favor.
The Bulls defense established themselves early and sustained their intensity throughout the game, forcing five turnovers including a season high three interceptions on Palko.
Coming into the game, Palko had only thrown three interceptions on the year.
“It all started up front, the defensive line played really well today,” linebacker Ben Moffitt said. “You could see the frustration on (Pittsburgh’s) faces because things weren’t going their way.”
USF controlled the line of scrimmage and opened holes all day for linebackers Moffitt, Stephen Nicholas and Patrick St. Louis.
The trio recorded 16 tackles, two sacks and a tipped pass.
“The defensive line came off the ball and played excellent,” Nicholas said. “They put me one on one with the back and let me bring him down.”
Pittsburgh was unable to get their run game going and finished the day with their second lowest rushing total of the season with 74 yards on the ground. Rutgers held the Panthers to a feeble 67 yards the previous week.
Through the air the Panthers didn’t fare much better. Palko finished the game completing 11-23 passes for 159 yards and his lone touchdown came with 1:16 remaining in the game.
USF allowed Pittsburgh to gain 214 yards of total offense, their best performance since the season opening win against McNeese State when the Cowboys only managed 163 yards on offense.
The 12 points allowed was the fewest since McNeese State scored 10.
“Our defense did a great job. I was disappointed they got that (touchdown) in the end,” coach Jim Leavitt said. “It was a total defensive effort.”
A big reason why Palko was unsuccessful Saturday was the play of the Bulls secondary. Defensive backs Mike Jenkins, Trae Williams and Jeremy Burnett each recorded an interception while Williams led the team with seven tackles.
“With all of the pressure (Palko) wasn’t able to make his reads and that helped us guard the receivers,” Williams said. “Since he had to scramble a lot more he wasn’t able to make that one big play.”
One of the main goals for USF was to prevent Pittsburgh from making a game changing play. And the Bulls were able to execute as the Panthers only had one play go for longer than 25 yards.
“Our goal was try not to give up any big plays,” St. Louis said. “They would make a play here and there but it would be called back because of penalties. Whenever they got that big play something would go wrong- holding call or a false start.”
With the Bulls leading 14-3 in the second quarter, a fumble by receiver Amarri Jackson on a failed hook-and-ladder play appeared to be a momentum killer.
But the defense stood their ground and didn’t let the miscue prove to be costly.
The Panthers next drive included a run for three yards, a Nicholas sack for a loss of eight yards and an incomplete pass by Palko to force Pittsburgh into another punting situation.
Pittsburgh was forced to punt six times on the afternoon.
USF then led 20-6 and Palko was flagged for an intentional grounding, when nose tackle Richard Clebert applied pressure in the end zone and the result was a safety.
“That safety was a huge play for us,” Leavitt said. “Especially after we missed that extra point to get those points really was a big play.”
The big play that Pittsburgh was searching for all afternoon.