Knowing it was a win or go home situation, Pitt answered the call with a 27-3 at Raymond James Stadium in Saturday night.
Tino Sunseri completed 19-of-25 passes for 211 yards. Ray Graham carried the ball 26 times for 94 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Mike Shanahan set a career-high with nine receptions for 116 yards.
Pitt evens its record 6-6, and now awaits its bowl fate. The three possibilities include a return trip to St. Petersburg on December 21 to play Central Florida, in the St. Petersburg Bowl, the Pinstripe Bowl in New York City on December 29, the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham on January 5, or possibly the Liberty Bowl to play Tulsa on December 31.
The bigger story of the game, may have been Pitt's ability to force turnovers. Pitt took advantage of an early turnover to gain 7-0 lead. Jason Hendricks came down with the ball after a USF receiver bobbled the catch, and couldn't hang on.
"I saw him look back because he saw me single-high (in coverage)," Hendricks said. "I just broke on the ball. I caught it on the tip."
The offense did out 13 points on the board, but converted only seven first downs in 20 minutes of possession in the first half. It was the first thing Paul Chryst chimed in on after the game.
"We kind of hurt ourselves," Chryst said. "Guys are working, so you appreciate that. We are getting ourselves ready, but I still feel we can be a lot better."
Taking over on the USF 21 yard-line, the Panthers scored on a Pitt got a little help, too. After a short completion to Shanahan was stopped short of a first down at the 2, but Bulls corner Kayvan Webster was flagged for illegal hands to the face. The Panthers got an automatic first down, and Graham ran it in from a yard out on the next play.
USF got inside the Pitt 20 on the next series. Then, quarterback Matt Floyd threw it right into the hands of Todd Thomas, who returned the all to the Pitt 37. Pitt couldn't capitalize. Sunseri, running away from pressure, threw the ball very late. In fact, so late that Webster--the same player whose penalty kept Pitt's scoring drive alive earlier--stripped Sunseri of the ball. Luckily for Pitt, Cory King recovered the ball. It was still a loss of 29 yards on the play. Pitt faced a 3rd and 34, and punted after a short run by Isaac Bennett on the next play.
Even though Pitt was forced to punt, the defense forced another turnover to get the offense back on the field. This time, Shayne Hale sacked Floyd and stripped the ball off him. Thomas recovered the fumble, setting Pitt up at the South Florida 23. Kevin Harper added a 25-yard field goal, making it a 10-0 lead, barely a minute and a half into the second quarter. Thomas had two turnovers recovered in one quarter of play
"It's just execution, you just have to know what you're doing," Thomas said, describing how turnovers work. "It's about being there at the right time. Tonight, that's what we did."
Harper added another field goal right before halftime, making it a 13-0 for Pitt. His 27-yarder capped a 7-play, 32-yard scoring drive--Pitt's longest drive of the half. The Panthers had the ball for over 20 minutes of the first half, forced three turnovers, but with just 13 points to show for it.
Much like the defense sparked the team in the first half, special teams continued its play in the second half. After South Florida was forced to punt on its opening series of the half, Ronald Jones returned the ensuing punt to the South Florida 32. Also on the play, he picked up a big block from Anthony Gonzalez, freeing him up.
With the help of a false start penalty on the first play of the drive, Pitt moved the ball steadily towards the goal line, capping it off with another 1-yard touchdown run. The Panthers also passed a couple milestones on the drive. On his third carry of the drive, Graham rushed for a gain of two yards. With that run, he crossed the 1,000-yard mark for the first time in his career. Two plays later, Sunseri completed a 14-yarder to Devin Street. That gave him 3,000 yards passing in a season for the first time in his career. It also marked the first time in school history that a Pitt team had a 3,000-yard passer and a 1,000-yard rusher in the same season.
"You appreciate those individual accomplishments, but those are really team things," Chryst said. "You don't take anything for granted, but there's a lot of guys who can take credit in those numbers."
Pitt answered with its fourth turnover of the game, this time an interception by K'Waun Williams. It was Williams' third interception of the season. J.P. Holtz scored on a two-yard touchdown pass from Sunseri. That gave Pitt a convincing a 27-0 lead with three and a half minutes left in the game. Even more convincing, the fact Pitt sustained a 50-yard drive in a total of nine plays. After looking sluggish in the first half, they were getting in a rhythm.
South Florida did get on the board. Maikan Bonani added a 26-yard field goal with 9:41 left in the game, capping an 11-play, 81-yard drive for the Bulls.