PITTSBURGH — Pitt improved to 6-4 on the year, 4-1 in the Big East and became bowl eligible with a 17-10 win at South Florida Saturday afternoon.

The Panthers and Bulls were tied 3-3 at halftime, but Pitt put two touchdowns on the board in the second half to win. Tino Sunseri completed a 12-yard swing pass to Ray Graham for a touchdown midway through the third quarter and Dion Lewis went 22 yards on the first play of the fourth quarter for what ended up being the game-winning touchdown.

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Here are my top five thoughts regarding Pitt and Saturday’s win:

1) Tino Sunseri needs more freedom.

Sunseri was probably the No. 1 reason Pitt won this game. Yes, Lewis ran for 106 yards and a touchdown. And yes, the defense played stout against B.J. Daniels. But Sunseri’s numbers in the second half don’t lie:

He completed 8 of 9 passes in the third and fourth quarters for over 100 yards. More telling was his ability to read the USF defense and pick up open receivers. He completed passes, which opened up running lanes for Lewis and Graham and the entire offense clicked.

Many are quick to jump on Sunseri when Pitt’s offense fails. Those same people tend to forget, though, that Bill Stull took longer to reach the efficiency level Sunseri has right now. Granted, Sunseri is far from being where Stull was at the end of his career at Pitt. But he’s doing good things right now with the ball and managing the offense.

I just wish he would throw a few more times each game. He’s showing he can.

2) Naked bootleg was the play of the game.

On a second-and-8 just past midfield, offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti dialed up a naked bootleg that Sunseri took for 18 yards. It put the Panthers well in to USF territory and allowed them to wind the clock that eventually ran out on the Bulls. Had Pitt been stopped at midfield, USF would have had all the time it needed to drive down the field.

This was a moment of creativity that I’ve been wanting to see more and more from the Pitt offense. It has been very bland this year and sometimes far too predictable. Not a single person saw that play coming and it was outstanding. Kudos to Cignetti.

3) B.J. Daniels was a non-factor.

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Credit that to the Pitt defense. Seemingly every time South Florida got near midfield the Panthers shut it down. Daniels was contained from running — had minus-5 yards rushing on the day — and wasn’t overly effective passing — was 15-for-29 for 132 yards and an interception.

He was most effective chucking ball deep and drawing pass interference. Despite the four calls on Reed, USF did little on offense all day.

4) Special teams looked better — still needs work.

Dan Hutchins’ inability to make field goals is dumbfounding. He was automatic last year and now can’t seem to find a groove. He missed a 43-yard attempt a few plays after Sunseri’s bootleg, which could have iced the game.

However, I thought the punt and kick pursuit was much better and Cam Saddler did well at fielding punts. The opening kickoff went for big yardage but was called back on an illegal block in the back. Plus, Lindsey Lamar was forced to take a knee on a couple kickoffs.

All told, more positive than negative. But more work to be done.

5) It wasn’t pretty but it will do.

And now Pitt is very close to winning the Big East. At 4-1 the Panthers are still the only team in the conference to have just one Big East loss and will have just two teams behind them with two losses — West Virginia and the winner of UConn-Syracuse.

Best case is a UConn loss, which gives Pitt a virtual two-game lead over Syracuse, owning the tiebreaker. With West Virginia up next, all the Panthers would need is a win for the crown.

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Chris Gates | Area 4-1-Zoo Blog