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Pitt slows down running of Bulls


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There have been times this season that Pitt, despite losing four of its first six games, has shown glimpses that it could be a good team. The Panthers would play well in spurts, for a quarter or a half, but never had they put together a complete game.

That is until yesterday, when they met the South Florida Bulls, a team that came into the game as the Big East Conference's darling because it had knocked off Louisville a month ago.

Pitt played its best offensive game of the season, beat the Bulls in every phase and came away with a 31-17 win that was, if not a thing of beauty, highly satisfying.

"South Florida is a good team, and we needed to beat a good team for our confidence's sake," said Pitt linebacker H.B. Blades. "We have a lot of young guys playing, we have a new coaching staff, we have a lot of things that have gone against us -- any time you win, it gives you confidence, but to beat a good team like this, and to have a total team effort, is something that we can build on for the rest of the year.

"When you have success, it brings a little swagger your way, and that's what we've needed. We've got a little taste, now we just need to keep moving forward."

Besides winning a conference game and improving to 3-4 (2-1 in the Big East), the Panthers also proved they've grown up some since the beginning of the season by the way they handled adversity. And the Panthers also rediscovered one of their weapons -- freshman running back LaRod-Stephens Howling, who returned from an ankle injury and ran 14 times for 91 yards.

Early in the game, South Florida blocked a punt and forced a fumble by quarterback Tyler Palko to jump out to a 10-0 lead. In games past, that might have been enough to send the Panthers reeling.

Yesterday, the Panthers not only recovered, they got up and delivered enough shots to knock the Bulls back on their heels for the balance of the game. The Panthers used big plays to score 21 unanswered points in the first six minutes of the second quarter and never looked back.

Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said he was happy the team won, but he was most proud of the way the Panthers responded to adversity because it shows they are maturing.

"We fell behind early, and our football team was able to mentally not fall apart," Wannstedt said. "We didn't come unglued and we made the plays to overcome it. I thought our leaders did the things you need to do to get back in the game, the things you need to do down the stretch to win the game.

"The guys showed up and made plays. That was good. And LaRod gives us a dimension that's exciting every time he touches the ball. It was great to get him back."

Pitt's first score came on a wide-receiver screen from Palko to Greg Lee, a Tampa, Fla., native who has scorched his hometown Bulls both times he has faced them. Lee caught the pass and ran 69 yards to pull the Panthers within 10-7.

The Panthers forced a fumble on the ensuing drive, then made the turnover pay off when Palko threw to Tim Murphy for a 3-yard touchdown and a 14-10 lead. The big play on the drive again was a pass from Palko to Lee, this one covering 41 yards and setting up the Panthers with a first-and-goal at the 3.

In two games against the Bulls, Lee, who finished with three catches for 106 yards and a touchdown, has 11 catches for 259 yards and five touchdowns.

"It is always fun to play against your hometown team," said Lee, who wasn't offered a scholarship by the Bulls. "You just want to show what you can do and let them know what kind of player you are."

Pitt linebacker Clint Session hit South Florida quarterback Pat Julmiste and forced a fumble on the first play of the Bulls' next drive and, five plays later, Pitt led, 21-10, when Palko sneaked in from the 1.

Wannstedt said that sequence enabled the Panthers to take control of the game because they made sure both fumbles hurt the Bulls.

"We were able to get touchdowns off those turnovers, and that is always critical," Wannstedt said. "That's what got us back in the game early. The big play to turn it around was the screen to Greg Lee. I always kid and say we need to find those plays where you can score without having to block anybody -- that was one of those plays."

Pitt's defense played very well, considering the challenge presented by the speed of the Bulls' offense. South Florida's first 10 points were the result of a short field -- the Bulls recovered a blocked punt at the Panthers' 4 and a fumble at the Panthers' 27 -- and its only other score came as a result of a big play -- a 76-yard pass from Julmiste to Andre Hall.

Minimizing those big plays and tackling well were among the Panthers' top priorities yesterday, and it showed as they shut out the Bulls in the second half and held the speedy Hall, the conference's second-leading rusher, to 80 yards on 19 carries, including a long run of 9 yards.

"We've played pretty solid on defense the past few weeks, but we've been hungry for turnovers." said Blades.

"You saw how they can change the game in an instant, and that's why we, as a defense, feel it is our job to create them. We just needed to change the momentum of the game, and turnovers are an easy way to do that.

"Then to have the offense score touchdowns, that just made us even more hungry."

Wannstedt's summation was succinct.

"We didn't make many mistakes,"

"I thought our tackling was, for the most part, good. We gave up one score, the quick slant to Hall, but, other than that play, I was really pleased with our defense today."

http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/05289/589457.stm

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