Pitt's big opportunity

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
Pitt was the "it" team in the Big East this summer.

The Panthers were the wise-guy dark horse pick to win the league. They started the season in the Top 25 despite coming off a 5-7 year and not having gone to a bowl in Dave Wannstedt's first three years. Some guy who looks suspiciously like the picture on the right of this blog predicted that Pittsburgh would win at least eight games.

The bandwagon was riding high -- until the wheels came off about two hours into the season. Pitt lost to Bowling Green at home in its opener, and it suddenly sank right back off the national radar.

Tonight, though, the Panthers have a chance to justify all that preseason hype and make the Bowling Green game a distant memory. They'll play on national TV against No. 10 South Florida (ESPN, 7:30 p.m. ET) at Tampa's Raymond James Stadium.

"Right now, this is the biggest game of our season," running back LaRod Stephens-Howling said. "It's an opportunity for us to see where we're at, to see if we can knock off a big opponent like South Florida."

Since the Bowling Green loss, Pittsburgh has won three straight, including its conference opener at Syracuse last week. But none of them came easy. The Panthers had to claw back in the fourth quarter to beat Iowa and to survive against the lowly Orange, who held a 24-13 lead in the third quarter.

The Panthers' defense has been dominant late in the game but has gotten off to slow starts. Quarterback Bill Stull, who came into the year having only played two quarters as a collegian, is still finding his way. LeSean McCoy, who generated some Heisman buzz in the preseason, had his first 100-yard rushing day last week.

"We're not where we need to be," Wannstedt said, "but we're inching our way closer."

They'll have to improve by a lot more than inches to compete with South Florida, which is far more talented than any of the first four opponents.

"We definitely haven't played anybody with their speed and athleticism on defense," Stephens-Howling said. "They're probably one of the quickest defenses that we'll play in the Big East."

Sometimes, the best way to counter speed is with power, and that fits right into Pitt's game plan. Stull does not excel at throwing the ball deep, and the team's strength lies in its running game with McCoy and Stephens-Howling. The Panthers are a disciplined bunch -- they lead the Big East and are among the best in the nation at avoiding penalties -- who will try to control the clock and keep the Bulls' fast-strike offense on the sidelines.

Pittsburgh hasn't had a showcase opportunity like this since 2006, when it started 6-1 and looked ready to return to power in Wannstedt's second year. Then Rutgers came to Heinz Field in a nationally-televised game and won 20-10. The Panthers lost their final five games to finish 6-6.

They are a heavy underdog tonight in a stadium where South Florida rarely loses. At the very least, they need a competitive showing to build some confidence for the rest of the season. If they can pull off the upset, they'd be 2-0 in the Big East, and the bandwagon would take on more passengers.

Is Pittsburgh ready?

"I hope," Wannstedt said. "We'll find out. This will be a great opportunity. This will test us in areas where we haven't been tested -- the atmosphere, the talent -- a lot of different factors."