Big East conference play begins tonight for No. 10 South Florida (5-0) when it hosts the Pittsburgh Panthers (3-1) at Raymond James Stadium.
The Bulls defeated the Panthers 48-37 last year in the last game of USF’s regular season. The team isn’t expecting an easy win because of its success last season, however. USF coach Jim Leavitt said there is a different approach to Pitt this year because it is the first conference game.
“It’s a whole different mentality as you go into conference play,” he said.”
Junior quarterback Matt Grothe said the first five games of the season were just preperation for Big East competition.
“It’s good to be 5-0 coming into this game,” he said. “But if we don’t win this one, those wins will mean nothing.”
Sophomore defensive end Craig Marshall — who made his first career start Saturday in place of an injured George Selvie — said the energy in practice has been elevated with conference play looming.
“Oh yeah, this is a big week,” he said. “Coach has really been pushing us hard.”
Marshall and the rest of the defensive line will try to stop Pittsburgh’s running attack. Sophomore running back LeSean McCoy had 138 total yards of offense and three touchdowns in last year’s game.
“He’s a good running back,” Bulls senior linebacker Tyrone McKenzie said. “He’s one of the elite running backs in college football. He can either juke you, or get you with a burst of speed. I’m very excited to play against him.”
McCoy is anchored by senior running back LaRod Stephens-Howling, who averages 5.4 yards per carry this season.
USF defensive backs coach Troy Douglas said the balance in the backfield is a concern.
“One guy is bigger and more powerful,” he said. “Both of them have quickness. We are going to have to get the right gaps and tackle well.”
Douglas said he’s hoping cornerbacks Jerome Murphy and Tyller Roberts will move up to help the Bulls rush defense, which is ranked fourth in the nation.
“This will be a big week for both of them,” he said. “Pitt likes to make the corners come and make the tackle. The corners will be vital for us to slow their run game down.”
Marshall has a simpler solution.
“We are just going to play how we play defense,” he said. “We are going to swarm and punish.”
Leavitt said earlier this week that defensive lineman Selvie and sophomore defensive tackle Terrell McClain are still a game-time decisions since both are nursing ankle injuries. Senior linebacker Brouce Mompremier will not play, even though he was in uniform at practice Thursday. Mompremier is recovering from a neck injury suffered Sept. 20 at Florida International.
Senior defensive end Jarriet Buie said he can’t wait to get Selvie back.
“He’s my counterpart,” Buie said. “It really hurts not having him out there, but all we can do is just keep pushing.”
With all the defensive injuries, the Bulls have been susceptible to big plays. Last week, N.C. State averaged 26.5 yards per pass completion against the Bulls.
“We have a lot of youth playing this year,” Douglas said. “With the big plays, it’s a combination of a lot of different things. I know we are the kitchen hot spot, and we get most the blame. It’s really the whole defense, though.”
Grothe said he believes the Bulls have enough experience, which will help them as they enter into conference play.
“We are more mature (this season),” he said. “We know we just need to play football and everything will come as it should.”
Leavitt said that anytime a game is played in the Big East, it isn’t easy.
“We are playing a very good football team,” he said. “They have a lot of talent, they are a well-coached team and we know it’s going to be a great challenge.”