TAMPA, Fla. – South Florida’s season won’t end with a bowl appearance, and the Bulls would like to ruin any chance Pittsburgh might have of finishing an underachieving year of its own on a positive note.
Pitt (5-6, 2-4) can become eligible for a postseason berth by winning the final conference game the Panthers will play before moving from the Big East to the ACC next fall. USF (3-8, 1-5) is hoping to undermine that prospect while maybe also making a statement in support of coach Skip Holtz retaining his job.
The Panthers have rebounded from an 0-2 start under first-year coach Paul Chryst to get themselves into position to receive a bowl bid for the fifth straight year. The Bulls have been in a downward spiral, losing eight of nine, since beating Chattanooga and Nevada to begin their third season under Holtz.
Pitt has won the past four meetings between the teams, including 44-17 at Heinz Field in 2011 – a game in which USF was outscored 24-0 in the second half.
“If anything, it gives us more reasons to be up for this game. Last year, they embarrassed us,” USF defensive tackle Luke Sager said, adding he and his teammates would love to ensure Pitt’s season ends tonight.
“That’s what we’ve been talking about. Just make sure if we can’t go to a bowl, they can’t go. That’s out mind-set,” fellow defensive tackle Cory Grissom noted. “They handled us. We’d like to do the same to them.”
That could be a tall order with redshirt freshman quarterback Matt Floyd making his second career start.
The Bulls lost senior B.J. Daniels, third on the Big East career total offense list, to a season-ending ankle injury three games ago and sputtered offensively in lopsided losses to Miami and Cincinnati the past two weeks.
Floyd threw for 176 yards and no interceptions a week ago, however he’s yet to throw for a touchdown.
That means little to a Pitt defense that has shown steady improvement.
“He’s a young kid, but he’s going to be a good player. I’m sure he’s still in the learning process, but he does a nice job of handling the offense,” Panthers defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable said. “He has a nice arm and does some good things throwing the football.”
Holtz is 16-20 since taking over at USF following the 2009 season, including 5-15 in the Big East.
Athletic director Doug Woolard said in early October the status of Holtz, who received a contract extension through 2017 after finishing 5-7 a year ago, will be reviewed after the season.
This will be the final game for 25 USF seniors.
“I love the character and work habits, the way this senior class has kept it together. ... There are some guys who been through injuries who will be out there in street clothes. They’ve done an awful lot to add character, and they’ve added a foundation for the young players,” Holtz said.
Holtz said beating Pitt would provide some momentum for the program moving ahead. USF made six consecutive bowl trips before losing seven of eight following a 4-0 start to fail to earn a postseason berth last year.
“Without a doubt, it’s big. We want to send out the seniors on a positive note. With as much adversity as we’ve been through the past two years, as hard as they’ve worked, as hard as they’ve played, to just fall short, just fall short, just fall short,” Holtz said, lamenting on a string of close losses that undermined 2011.
“Those frustrations, yes, a win would go a long way toward erasing those frustrations,” Holtz added. “Give those seniors a chance to walk out with a positive taste in their mouth. One thing this senior group won’t do is quit. I know it’s been frustrating. It would go a long way to get a win.”
Pitt is coming off a 27-6 upset of Rutgers, their second win over a ranked team. They also gave No. 1 Notre Dame its toughest test to date, losing to the Fighting Irish on the road in triple overtime.
Tino Sunseri has thrown 245 consecutive passes without an interception – the longest streak in the nation. Ray Graham enters the finale 52 yards shy of rushing for 1,000 for the first time, and Holtz is impressed with the way the Panthers have played on defense lately.
Last year’s game at Heinz Field also is in the back of the USF coach’s mind.
“But I don’t think this is a revenge game. When you look at the first half, it was 20-17 at halftime. More than anything, it’s an opportunity to redeem ourselves ... Redemption is definitely part of the equation,” Holtz said, “to prove what type of football team we really have here.”
With a possible bowl berth on the line, Chryst doesn’t anticipate Pitt taking the struggling Bulls lightly.
“Shame on us if we don’t have the right attitude,” the coach said. “It also means to me, that you haven’t watched much tape. You throw on the film and I see talented players. They’re playing fast and I know they’re well coached. That would be a big mistake, not respecting any opponent, but certainly this one.”