Big East hopes hang in limbo

If there’s any week where the phrase “short-term memory” is used to describe a team’s mind-set following a loss, it’s been this week for USF.

With the Bulls sitting at 1-1 in the conference standings, junior linebacker Sabbath Joseph said Saturday’s game at No. 20 Pittsburgh (6-1, 3-0) at noon is crucial if USF doesn’t want to face a trend similar to the last few years.

“This is our Big East game of the year – our Big East championship game,” he said. “This is our BCS bowl right here. That’s how we have to look at it.”

The Panthers hold the top spot in the Big East standings while USF (5-1, 1-1) is tied for fourth after suffering its first loss to Cincinnati last week. There are still two undefeated teams in conference play: the Bearcats (6-0, 2-0) and West Virginia (5-1, 1-0).

“We have to beat (Pittsburgh) if we want a chance at winning the Big East title,” Joseph said.

Joseph and the rest of USF’s defense will be facing a tough running back, said defensive coordinator Joe Tresey. Freshman Dion Lewis ranks third in the nation with 131 yards per game.

“He’s the best back we’ve seen this year without a doubt,” Tresey said. “(Coach) Jim (Leavitt) said it the other day: He’s a lot like Barry Sanders. His feet stay within his framework and are always moving. He does a great job with balance, vision – seeing the field. You don’t know where he’s going to appear sometimes. He’ll jump outside and give you issues.”

Tresey also said Lewis and the improvement of senior quarterback Bill Stull, who is completing 66.7 percent of his passes, gives Pittsburgh a balanced offense. Last season, Stull completed 57 percent of his passes. He’s seventh in the nation with a 159.4 passer rating and has 14 touchdowns with three interceptions.

Leavitt said he was encouraged by USF’s response in practice this week from the loss, as the Bulls prepare to stop another high-powered offense.

“You can’t sit on a loss like you can’t sit on a win,” he said. “It isn’t easy all the time. We’ve got a nature about us and it’s something you have to do.”

The Bulls have defeated the Panthers twice at Heinz Field, including a 48-37 victory in their last trip in 2007 – a year when USF ranked as high as No. 2 in the country.

However, last year the Panthers ruined USF’s perfect season, winning 26-21 at Raymond James Stadium on national TV.

“(I remember) the pain and agony after that game in the locker room,” Joseph said. “Coming off a big win, then losing our Big East opener to them. We felt like we should have won that game.”

If the Bulls can return a defeat, it could re-assert them in the Big East race, something that’s slipped away the past two seasons.

In 2007, USF won its first Big East game against then-No. 5 West Virginia only to drop the next three. After the loss to Pittsburgh last year, USF lost four of its next six.

“I know it’s been happening, but it’s something you can’t control,” said senior receiver Jessie Hester, who’s been limited by injury this year. “All you can control is the game plan that’s given to us, and we have to execute. We had a great game plan (against Cincinnati). We just didn’t make plays.”

This year could be a tougher challenge for the Bulls, as the league has far exceeded expectations, Tresey said. Three teams sit in the top 25 – with USF on the cusp of both major polls as well.

“There’s so much balance in this league. There’s so much parity,” he said. “You better bring your ‘A’ game every week. I don’t care if you’re playing the team at the bottom of the league or the top of the league.”

USF has a shot at a team sitting on top of the league this Saturday.

“It’s two very good football teams playing,” Leavitt said. “I expect it to be one heck of a football game.”