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Football heads to South Florida eyeing bowl eligibility




Nov. 26, 2012

Pitt (5-6, 2-4 Big East) vs. USF (3-8, 1-5 Big East)

Dec. 1, 2012 • 7 p.m., ET • ESPN2

Raymond James Stadium (65,787/Natural Grass) • Tampa, Fla.

Pitt Game Notes Link: USF Game


Pitt-USF Storylines

• Coming off a 27-6 demolition of nationally ranked Rutgers, Pitt will travel to Tampa looking to achieve postseason eligibility when it takes on USF at Raymond James Stadium.

• A victory over USF would give Pitt the necessary six victories to be eligible for an invitation to one of the Big East’s six bowls. The Panthers have been to four consecutive postseason dates since 2008.

• Pitt is riding a four-game winning streak in the USF series. Last year, the Panthers routed the Bulls, ranked in the Top 20 at the time, 44-17, at Heinz Field.

• Quarterback Tino Sunseri has thrown 245 consecutive passes without an interception, the longest active streak in the country. Sunseri has 18 touchdown passes against just two INTs. He ranks second in the Big East and 20th nationally in pass efficiency with a strong 154.56 rating. 

• The Pitt offense has been exceptional in taking care of the football this year. The Panthers lead the country in fewest turnovers with eight (tied with Ohio). Pitt has just one turnover in its past six games. 

• Tailback Ray Graham is eyeing the first 1,000-yard rushing season of his collegiate career. Graham enters the USF game with 948 yards. Last year, he was the nation’s second-leading rusher through seven games (134.14 avg.) before a right knee injury against Connecticut ended his year. He finished 2011 with 958 yards.

• Pitt’s defense has made impressive improvements throughout this season. The Panthers boast national top-30 rankings in scoring defense (23rd, 21.18 points/game), total defense (25th, 344.82 yards/game), pass defense (28th, 204.73 yards/game) and pass efficiency defense (29th, 117.12 rating).


Pitt-USF Series Notes

This is the 10th meeting between Pitt and USF in a series that dates back to 2001...the Panthers lead the series, 6-3, and have won four consecutive games against the Bulls...in last year’s meeting, Pitt routed USF, 44-17, at Heinz Field...the Bulls entered last year’s contest with a 4-0 record and ranked as high as No. 14...in 2010, Pitt defeated USF at Raymond James Stadium, 17-10...Pitt is 3-2 against USF at Heinz Field and 3-1 in games played in Tampa...the teams first met on Sept. 8, 2001 at Heinz Field...USF earned one of its earliest signature victories that day, upsetting the Panthers, 35-26...the teams would not play again until 2004, when Pitt clinched an invite to the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl with a 43-14 victory at Raymond James Stadium...that game was played on Dec. 4, 2004, a switch from its original Labor Day date (Sept. 6) due to Hurricane Frances...the 2004 encounter was the last non-conference game between the two schools as USF joined the Big East for the 2005 season.

Pitt-USF Series in Brief

Series Began: 2001

Series Overall: Pitt leads 6-3

Big East Series: Pitt leads 5-2

At Pittsburgh: Pitt leads 3-2

At USF: Pitt leads 3-1

At Neutral Sites: DNA

Last Meeting: Sept. 29, 2011 (Pitt 44, USF 17)

Last Meeting at USF: Nov. 20, 2010 (Pitt 17, USF 10)

Current Streak: Pitt has won 4

Longest Pitt Series Win Streak: 4 games (2008-11)

Longest USF Series Win Streak: 2 games (2006-07)

Largest Pitt Margin of Victory: 29 points (43-14, 2004)

Largest USF Margin of Victory: 11 points (48-37, 2007)


Pitt-USF Broadcast Information

Television • ESPN2

Mark Jones, play-by-play

Brock Huard, analyst

Quint Kessenich, reporter


Pitt Radio • Sportsradio 93.7 The Fan & the Pitt IMG Sports Network

Bill Hillgrove, play-by-play

Pat Bostick, analyst

Gregg Giannotti, reporter


Internet Audio • Panthers All-Access

PittsburghPanthers.com


SiriusXM Satellite Radio

Sirius Channel 128, XM Channel 192


Pitt Team Notes

Shooting for Bowl Eligibility

With a 5-6 overall record and one regular-season game remaining, Pitt needs a victory at USF to become eligible for one of the Big East Conference’s six postseason slots. Since 2000, the Panthers have advanced to nine bowl games. Pitt went to five consecutive bowls from 2000-04. After failing to qualify for three consecutive years (2005-07), the Panthers have been to a bowl each of the past four seasons. 

Early Indicator

Pitt is 5-1 this season when it scores first. The lone loss was a 45-35 setback against Louisville on Oct. 13. In contrast, Pitt is 0-5 this season when its opponent scores first. 

Close Shaves

Three of Pitt’s six defeats this year have been by single-digit margins. Each of those close shaves have been on the road — Oct. 5 at Syracuse (14-13), Nov. 3 at Notre Dame (29-26 in three overtimes) and Nov. 9 at Connecticut (24-17).

Turnover Margin

Pitt ranks 23rd nationally and second in the Big East in turnover margin. The Panthers are plus-8 in the turnover department (0.73 margin per game), forcing 16 and only losing eight. 

Fresh Faces

Through 11 games, Pitt has had four true freshmen see action: tight end J.P. Holtz, defensive lineman Darryl Render, tailback Rushel Shell and cornerback Jahmahl Pardner. Holtz has played in all 11 games, starting eight. He has nine receptions for 152 yards (16.9 avg.) and two touchdowns on the year. Shell is Pitt’s second-leading rusher with 509 yards and four TDs on 105 carries (4.8 avg.) in 10 games played. Render has played in nine contests with one start, and has six tackles, 1.5 TFLs and one PBU on the season. Pardner had been playing a significant role as a nickel back and reserve cornerback through the first three games but suffered a left ACL injury against Virginia Tech and will be out for the season. He is expected to receive a medical redshirt.

2012 Team Captains

Pitt has selected its team captains for the 2012 season. They are senior center Ryan Turnley, senior wide receiver Mike Shanahan, senior wide receiver Cameron Saddler, senior safety Jarred Holley and junior defensive tackle Aaron Donald. 

Ray on the Career Lists

Senior Ray Graham will finish his career as one of the most productive running backs in school history. Graham is prominent on Pitt’s career statistical lists for all-purpose yards, rushing and scoring. He currently ranks second in all-purpose yards (4,849), third in rushing (3,177) and eighth in scoring (204 points).

Golden Graham

Ray Graham had one of the finest performances of his career when Pitt faced the heralded Notre Dame defense on Nov. 3. Graham rushed for a season-high 172 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries (7.2 avg.). Notre Dame entered the game ranked ninth nationally in rushing defense, yielding just 95.25 yards on the ground. Graham’s first carry of the game was a 55-yard burst into the heart of the Notre Dame defense. It stands as the longest offensive play given up by the Irish this season. Later in the second quarter, he scooted around the right end for a 16-yard touchdown run — the first rushing TD by an opposing running back against the Irish this year. 

Efficiency Excellence

Tino Sunseri ranks second in the Big East and 20th nationally in pass efficiency with an impressive 154.56 rating. On the year he has completed 221-of-336 passes (66%) for 2,892 yards and 18 touchdowns with just two interceptions.

As a junior, Sunseri ranked 82nd nationally in pass efficiency (124.09), completing 64% of his passes (247 of 385) for 2,616 yards with 10 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.

Tino on a Roll

Tino Sunseri has been highly productive over the past nine games. During that stretch Sunseri has completed 66% of his passes for 2,375 yards (263.9 yards per game) and 16 touchdowns with only one interception.   

245 Passes and Counting

Tino Sunseri has a current streak of 245 pass attempts without an interception, the longest active streak in the country. Sunseri’s last interception came at the 14:13 mark of the fourth quarter in Pitt’s 35-17 victory over Virginia Tech on Sept. 15. That INT came at the Pitt 36 with the Panthers holding a 28-17 lead. Pitt’s defense rose to the occasion, forcing a three-and-out. On their next possession, the Panthers drove 88 yards for the game-clinching touchdown, a six-yard Sunseri pass to Mike Shanahan. Sunseri’s only other interception this season came in the second game of the year at Cincinnati (Sept. 6).

Terrific on Turnovers

Pitt is tied for first nationally in fewest turnovers with just eight on the year (tied with Ohio). The Panthers are also tied for the national lead with only two interceptions thrown (tied with Alabama and Army). In terms of fumbles lost, Pitt ranks 14th (tied) in the country with just six. Pitt has just two turnovers in its past seven games. The Panthers lost a fumble in the first quarter at Syracuse (Oct. 5) and also lost a fumble on a center-QB exchange against Rutgers (Nov. 24). 

Seasoned Signal Caller

Tino Sunseri has started 37 consecutive games dating back to the 2010 season opener at Utah. Sunseri’s starting streak is the longest by a Pitt quarterback since Alex Van Pelt made a school-record 46 consecutive starts from 1989-92. Van Pelt is Pitt’s career leader in passing yards (11,267) and total offense (11,148). Sunseri ranks fourth in both career passing yards (8,194) and career total offense (8,252). 

Devin Dazzles

Junior wide receiver Devin Street ranks second in the Big East in both receptions per game (5.45 avg.) and receiving yards per game (74.55 avg.). On the year, Street has totaled 60 catches for 820 yards (13.7 avg.) and four touchdowns.  

A Pitt player has led the Big East in receptions four times in the history of the conference. Larry Fitzgerald was the last to accomplish the feat during his 2003 All-America season when he averaged 7.1 catches per game. A Pitt player has led the Big East in receiving yards nine times, the most recent coming in 2005 when two-time all-conference receiver Greg Lee averaged 87.5 yards per contest. Fitzgerald was the last Pitt player to lead the Big East in both categories in the same season (2003).

Going over 100

Devin Street had a career-high 140 receiving yards on six catches in Pitt’s 47-17 victory over Temple on Oct. 27. It was Street’s third 100-yard receiving performance of the year. He previously had 111 yards on a career-high 11 catches vs. Louisville, and 130 yards on 10 receptions at Syracuse. The last Pitt player to record more than three 100-yard receiving games in a season was Jon Baldwin, who had seven 100-yard games in 2009. Baldwin totaled 1,111 yards that year on 57 catches. He went on to be a 2011 first-round draft pick of the Kansas City Chiefs. 

Sticky Fingers

Mike Shanahan and Devin Street rank among the most prolific pass catchers in Pitt history as evidenced by the school’s career lists for receptions and receiving yards. Shanahan is fifth all-time in receptions (146) and ninth in receiving yards (2,103). Street has 138 catches to rank sixth and is 10th in career receiving yards with 1,892.

A Winning Shell Game

Freshman tailback Rushel Shell was a key offensive catalyst in Pitt’s 35-17 win over Virginia Tech by rushing for 157 yards on 23 attempts, an impressive 6.8-yard average. It is the highest single-game rushing total by a Big East freshman this season and the fifth best rushing performance by a Big East player regardless of class. Shell is the first Pitt freshman to rush for 100 yards in a game since Dion Lewis had 159 against North Carolina in the Meineke Car Care Bowl on Dec. 26, 2009. (Pitt defeated the Tar Heels, 19-17.) 

O-Line Stability

Pitt has enjoyed much more stability on its offensive front this season compared to last year. In 2011, due to a myriad of injuries, Pitt was forced to shuffle eight different starting offensive line combinations in 13 games.

In 2012, Pitt fielded the same starting five on its offensive front for the first eight games of the year. With junior guard Ryan Schlieper’s season-ending right foot injury against Temple Oct. 27, sophomore Arthur Doakes has taken over the starting role for the subsequent three games.

The season-long fixtures on the offensive line have been junior Cory King at left tackle, senior Chris Jacobson at left guard, senior Ryan Turnley at center and sophomore Matt Rotheram at right tackle.

Surpassing 600

Pitt rolled up 626 yards in total offense (397 passing, 229 rushing) against Gardner-Webb, the Panthers’ highest single-game production since 1997 when they had 645 yards (470 passing, 175 rushing) in a double-overtime victory at Rutgers (55-48). The Gardner-Webb contest marked Pitt’s highest total offense in a regulation game since 1995 when it compiled a school-record 648 yards (333 passing, 315 rushing) in a 66-30 win over Eastern Michigan.

Historic Two-Game Production

In its back-to-back September victories, Pitt produced a combined 1,163 yards in total offense (626 vs. Gardner-Webb and 537 vs. Virginia Tech). This two-game total set a school record for offensive output in consecutive games. The prior mark was 1,154 set in 1992. That season, Pitt had 558 yards vs. Rutgers followed by a 596-yard game vs. Minnesota.

500-Yard Games

Pitt has reached 500 yards in total offense three times this year. The Panthers last achieved that feat back in 1992 when the Pitt offense, led by all-time leading passer Alex Van Pelt, had four 500-yard games.

Defensive Improvement

Pitt’s defense has improved significantly since the opening two games of the season when the Panthers started 0-2 and gave up an average of 422.5 yards. Over its subsequent nine games, Pitt sliced that average by nearly 95 yards, giving up only 327.6 yards per contest. (Of note: Pitt’s averages include a triple-overtime game at Notre Dame Nov. 3.)

Point Prevention

Perhaps Pitt’s most impressive improvement has been in scoring defense. In its opening two losses, Pitt gave up an average of 32.5 points. Over the past nine games, that average has been reduced to 18.7 (During this current nine-game stretch, Pitt surrendered four touchdowns on returns — two on fumbles and two on punts. Taking out those 28 points, the 18.7 scoring average drops to 15.6.) In 11 total games this year, Pitt is yielding 21.18 points to rank 23rd nationally and fourth in the Big East.

Air Defense

The Panthers boast strong national rankings in defending the pass. Pitt is 28th in pass yardage defense (204.73 yards/game). That average ranks second in the Big East.

Pitt is 29th in pass efficiency defense (fourth in the Big East) with a 117.12 rating. The Panthers have only given up 12 passing touchdowns this season, the second-lowest total among all Big East teams.

Not in a Rush

In its most recent game, Pitt held Rutgers to 50 net rushing yards, the third time this year the Panthers have held an opponent under 100 yards rushing. Previously the Panthers held Virginia Tech (59) and Gardner-Webb (32) under 100 yards on the ground. On the season, Pitt is surrendering 140.09 rushing yards per game to rank 36th nationally and fourth in the Big East.

Hendricks Leads League

Coming off an abbreviated 2011 campaign due to a shoulder injury, junior safety Jason Hendricks has bounced back in top form this season. Hendricks leads Pitt with four interceptions. His average of 0.36 INTs per game ranks first in the Big East (tied) and 20th nationally.

Turnovers are Key

Pitt is 3-1 this season when forcing multiple turnovers in a game. In contrast, the Panthers are 2-5 when failing to generate more than one turnover.

In its 35-17 win over No. 13 Virginia Tech, Pitt forced a season-high four turnovers, including three interceptions of Hokies quarterback Logan Thomas. Junior free safety Jason Hendricks had two picks while senior strong safety Jarred Holley had the other.

Additionally, sophomore linebacker Eric Williams had Pitt’s first fumble recovery of the season. Williams recovered a fumble (forced by redshirt freshman defensive end Devin Cook) at the Virginia Tech 10 in the second quarter. Ray Graham rushed for a five-yard TD two plays later to give Pitt a 21-0 lead.

The Panthers forced three more turnovers in their 55-10 win over Gardner-Webb the following week. Hendricks had his third interception of the year, while senior defensive end Shayne Hale and senior linebacker Joe Trebitz both had fumble recoveries.

In a 47-17 rout of Temple, the Panthers gained two turnovers — fumble recoveries by Eric Williams and redshirt freshman cornerback Lafayette Pitts.

Despite forcing three turnovers at Notre Dame (two interceptions and a fumble recovery), the Panthers fell to the No. 4 Irish, 29-26, in triple overtime — the only time this season when Pitt has lost while forcing multiple turnovers.

Sack Attack

The Pitt defense has recorded at least one quarterback sack in 35 of the past 36 games. The Panthers had a streak of 25 consecutive games with a sack snapped against Youngstown State on Sept. 1. The YSU contest marked the first time Pitt had been held without a sack since Sept. 2, 2010, when they lost in overtime at Utah (27-24). Entering the Dec. 1 USF game, Pitt has 20 sacks on the season. Junior defensive tackle Aaron Donald leads the Panthers with 4.5 sacks and junior nose tackle Tyrone Ezell is second with 3.5.

TDs by the “D”

The Pitt defense has scored 22 touchdowns since the 2001 season. The Panthers are 20-0 when scoring at least one defensive touchdown in a game during that 11-season span.

Nearly Perfect on PATs

Since the opening of the 2006 season, Pitt has been virtually flawless on its extra-point kicks. The Panthers have missed only three PAT kicks over this current stretch (266 of 269, .989). During his two seasons as Pitt’s starting placekicker, senior Kevin Harper has gone 67-of-68 in PAT kicks (.985). Harper is 35-of-35 this year. Harper is also one of only three kickers in the Big East to make all of their extra-point kicks this season (minimum 20 attempts). Syracuse’s Ross Krautman (39 of 39) and Connecticut’s Chad Christen (22 of 22) are the others. 

Kevin Gets His Kicks

Kevin Harper is tied for the Big East lead and ranks 18th nationally with an average of 1.55 field goals per game. Harper has made 17-of-24 field goals this year, good for the second best field-goal percentage in the conference (.708). He has made 11 of his past 13 attempts and 13 of his past 16. Harper boasts a season-long field goal of 45 yards, made at Buffalo (Oct. 20) in wet and windy conditions.

Harper Among All-Time Leaders

Kevin Harper ranks among the top kick scorers of all-time at Pitt. Harper is currently sixth in kick scoring with 181 career points and could reach the top 5 before his senior season is complete.

Productive Rookie Returner

Redshirt freshman cornerback Lafayette Pitts is not only a starter on defense but also an impact kickoff return man. Pitts is averaging 25.77 yards per return to rank second in the Big East and 29th nationally. He had a season-long 64-yard kick return against Gardner-Webb. As a team, the Panthers rank 26th nationally and fourth in the Big East in kick returns with a 23.86 average.

Kickoff Return Defense

The Panthers are yielding only 19.26 yards per kickoff return this year to rank 24th nationally and fourth in the Big East. In its most recent contest, Pitt limited Rutgers to just 18.8 yards per kick return. The Scarlet Knights entered the contest with a Big East-leading 30.4-yard kick return average.

Panther Block Party

In the second quarter of the Oct. 13 Louisville contest, sophomore linebacker Todd Thomas blocked a punt and recovered it in the end zone for a touchdown, giving Pitt a 14-7 lead. It was Pitt’s first blocked punt for a TD since Oct. 15, 2011, when Andrew Taglianetti’s block was returned 10 yards for a score by Antwuan Reed vs. Utah. Pitt has blocked 42 kicks dating back to the 2000 season. During that stretch Taglianetti, a senior safety, leads all Panthers with a school-record six blocks.


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