After suffering a heartbreaking setback at Northern Illinois last Thursday, the USF football team takes to the road again this week, traveling to Pennsylvania to take on the Pittsburgh Panthers.
The Bulls enter the game as heavy underdogs playing a Panther team which finished last season in the Insight.com Bowl and defeated East Tennessee State 31-0 last week. Bulls coach Jim Leavitt said to be able to compete with Pittsburgh, his team is going to have to do a better job in the fourth quarter. Last week, the team lost in the final frame after giving up a 13-point lead.
?We didn?t finish the game (last week),? Leavitt said. ?We?re going to be in a number of close games this year and if we can?t finish we?re going to struggle.?
Leavitt said in the loss to NIU, his team made several mistakes. He said key among these mistakes were a blocked punt and dropped passes. This has prompted personnel changes for this week?s matchup, most notably the removal of senior wide receiver Hugh Smith, who was responsible for a number of the dropped passes, from his starter?s role.
?We?re disappointed in Hugh, he had a rough game, that?s all there is to it,? Leavitt said. ?Brian (Fisher) will get an opportunity. That?s just how it works.?
The depth chart for the Bulls lists DeAndrew Rubin and Chris Iskra as starters for the game at wide receiver.
Another development has come out of the Pittsburgh receiver corps as the Bulls may not have to face All-American and 2000 Biletnikoff Winner for the nation?s leading receiver, Antonio Bryant.
Bryant is listed as one of the top five candidates for this year?s Heisman Trophy. He is listed as questionable for Saturday?s game after sustaining a left ankle sprain during a punt return against East Tennessee State.
Leavitt said even with the injury he is confident Bryant will play.
?I?m sure he?s healthy and ready to go this week,? he said. ?He?s an awfully good football player; we?re certainly going to do some things to track him.?
The Bulls? defense will face what is, besides Bryant, a relatively inexperienced Pittsburgh offense. Quarterback David Priestly had a solid showing in last week?s Panther victory, going 15-of-20 for 134 yards and one touchdown.
In addition to his passing touchdown, Priestly ran for an 85-yard score.
Also of note for the Panthers is the play of true freshman running back Raymond Kirkley, who rushed for 90 yards in his debut. Leavitt said despite the talent at receiver, his primary concern is stopping the running attack.
?If we don?t stop the run game it isn?t going to matter,? he said. ?That?s the biggest thing.?
Assistant coach and defensive coordinator Rick Kravitz said the team has spent much of practice this week conditioning to better be able to keep up with the Pittsburgh running attack.
?Their young running backs are very impressive,? he said. ?(Kirkley) looked very good in the first game.?
Kravitz said after having a game under their belt, the Bulls? defense must eliminate the mistakes.
?In some cases it was inexperience, in others it was dumb plays,? he said. ?We?ve got to play smarter.?
One of the keys for the Bulls last week was the high number of penalties ? the Bulls were penalized 11 times for 96 yards. Bulls defensive end Emerson Morris said the defense has worked hard in practice to eliminate such mistakes and prepare for Pittsburgh?s high-powered pro-set offense.
?We respect them,? he said. ?We have to go out there and plan.?
The Bulls allowed nearly 200 yards rushing against NIU. Last week, Pittsburgh rushed for a total of 229 yards.
?We haven?t been able to deal with the run,? Morris said. ?They?re going to see that and try to open up the run; at the same time they like to pass a lot.?
The Bulls? defense will have a tough task trying to outplay a Pittsburgh defense that is returning 10 of 11 starters from last year?s squad. This defense recorded seven sacks last week and is led by linebacker Gerald Hayes. Hayes, named to the 2000 All-Big East squad, lead the team in tackles with 14 against East Tennessee State, two of which were sacks. The Panther defense intercepted a pass and held East Tennessee State to just 180 total yards last week.
?The ends are athletic; their middle two guys are big and the safety is a big time hitter, he loves to come downhill,? Leavitt said.
The turning point of the game for the Bulls last week was a late fumble. Freshman running back Clenton Crossley fumbled late in the third quarter, leading to a touchdown and sparking the 13-point NIU rally.
?We?ve got to catch the ball better, we can?t fumble,? said Leavitt.
Offensive lineman Jimmy Fitts said despite the challenge, the team feels prepared and is ready for the challenge of playing a tough Panther team.
?We?re pretty confident about ourselves,? he said. ?We?re going to come out and have a good game against them.?
Rob Brannon covers football and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org