BY NATALIE BIGLEY
After a season of ups and downs, Pitt has the opportunity to end the regular season on a big up note.
If the Panthers (5-6) win at South Florida (3-8) tonight at 7 p.m., the Panthers are bowl eligible.
For first-year coach Paul Chryst, the opportunity to go to a bowl game is a good thing.
“The benefits to the program and the rewards to the players are huge,” he said at Monday’s press conference.
Of course, bowl eligibility rests on how the Panthers perform against the Bulls. If last week’s effort against Rutgers carries over, Pitt has to like its chances of extending the season.
Senior defensive back Andrew Taglianetti said after a dreadful first-half performance at Connecticut that led to a loss, he and his teammates found a sense of urgency.
Injury-ravaged South Florida never found that sense of urgency.
Starting quarterback B.J. Daniels broke his left ankle in the Bulls’ 13-6 win over Connecticut. Bobby Eveld came in for Daniels and separated his left shoulder in the first quarter of the Bulls’ 40-9 loss to Miami.
That leaves the offense in the hands of redshirt freshman quarterback Matt Floyd, who has struggled. Floyd has yet to throw a touchdown pass and has been intercepted twice.
Also out for the season is South Florida running back Lindsey Lamar. He sustained a chest injury in a tough 37-36 loss to Syracuse.
Pitt hasn’t struggled with as many key injuries as South Florida, but the Panthers still haven’t been able to win more than two consecutive games at any point of the schedule.
They dominated much of regulation before losing at undefeated and top-ranked Notre Dame in overtime. They handled Virginia Tech and Rutgers at Heinz Field. Yet, they let Youngstown State beat them up in the season opener and were held scoreless in the first half at Connecticut in another embarrassing performance..
Despite some of those tough losses, Pitt senior wide receiver Mike Shanahan said he does not like to dwell on the past.
“Throughout the season, you don’t really have time to think about what could have been,” Shanahan said. “You just have to move on. Looking back now, I guess there were some games that we thought we should have won. A lot of different things played into that. We’re just looking forward now and trying to make the most of what’s left of the season.”
And Pitt is in control of its own destiny – at least to a point. If the Panthers beat South Florida, they will make a bowl game. Which bowl game remains to be seen.
Several possibilities exist.
For Pitt fans, or at least the ones interested in travel, the Pinstripe Bowl in Yankee Stadium on Dec. 29 sounds the most appealing.
A six-hour drive from Pittsburgh, the Pinstripe Bowl could reinstate a heated Pitt rivalry as some predictions have West Virginia (6-5) as the Big 12 representative in the game.
Organizers could find a Backyard Brawl bowl game appealing.
While that would be ideal for Pitt and West Virginia fans, Pinstripe Bowl officials may lean towards placing in-state Syracuse (7-5) against West Virginia. It would be a familiar rivalry, considering the Mountaineers were a previous Big East Conference member and played against the Orange.
The next bowl possibility for the Panthers is the all-too-familiar BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham, Ala. Pitt has played in the BBVA Compass Bowl the last two years. Although the partnership has been pleasant, bowl organizers will probably want to see some new faces.
The last bowl possibility for the Panthers is the one that’s most likely to happen. Pitt could return back to the Tampa area on Dec. 21 to play in the Beef O’Brady’s Bowl at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. It would be a likely matchup against the University of Central Florida from Conference USA.
The Beef O’Brady’s Bowl Twitter account posted on Wednesday, “We’ll see if Pitt loses to USF. If Pitt wins, there’s a good chance they’ll come to St. Pete.”
Shanahan said that regardless of what bowl game they get, he and his teammates will just be happy to get there.
‘’I think it would be good to know that we could overcome anything and still get to another bowl game,’’ Shanahan said. ‘’I’ve gone to a bowl game every year since I’ve been here, so I want to keep that streak going this season.’’