TAMPA, Fla. (AP) -- Tyler Palko did his job. Now, he and (No. 21 ESPN/USA Today, No. 19 AP) Pittsburgh will let Bowl Championship Series officials determine
where the rejuvenated Panthers will celebrate New Year's Eve.
The sophomore who pumped vitality into what once loomed as a disappointing season, threw for a career-high 411 yards and five
touchdowns Saturday, helping Pitt (8-3) rout South Florida 43-14
and virtually assure the Panthers the Big East's automatic BCS bid.
"It doesn't really matter who we play, where we play and what
time we play. I'm just excited to get our football team the kind of
respect that we've earned," Palko said. "And with that, we've set
the bar high. There's going to be naysayers here and there, but the
only way we take care of that is continue to stay focused as a team
and keep winning."
Tampa-native Greg Lee scored on receptions of 18, 6 and 7 yards
in his homecoming, while Malcolm Postell returned one of his two
interceptions 15 yards for a TD to become the first Pitt player to
score three defensive touchdowns in a season.
The victory was the sixth in seven games for Pitt, which hardly
resembled a BCS team in stumbling to 2-2 start that included an
overtime victory over Division I-AA Furman and a 12-point loss at
The strong finish, however, gave the Panthers a share of the Big
East title with Syracuse, Boston College and West Virginia and sets
up a likely date against unbeaten Utah (11-0) in the Fiesta Bowl.
"I thought this was a big game, obviously, for us because we
had to make a statement that we weren't backing in," Pitt coach
Walt Harris said. "We had a chance to take care of our destiny.
Our players stepped up and played like we had to play."
Palko completed 19 of 28 passes and finished his afternoon by
throwing for two scores in the last 1:27 of the third quarter to
match the career-high five TD passes he threw against Notre Dame on
In his last five games, Palko has completed 59 percent of his
passes for 1,570 yards, 16 touchdowns and two interceptions.
"Stats are nice to look at when you're old and gray, but I
really don't care how many yards I have. As long as we get the win,
you're going to see a smile on my face" Palko said.
"It's awesome just seeing these guys execute and have fun
because there was so much negativity around Pittsburgh with us
before. Now we've set the bar pretty high, so it's going to be fun
to continue that high play."
Postell, who's returned three of his four interceptions this
season for touchdowns, helped set the tone.
The senior linebacker picked off a pass that glanced off the
hands of receiver S.J. Green and pranced into the end zone for a
13-0 lead less than five minutes into the game. He almost scored
again on his second interception, returning it 18 yards to the USF
7 to set up Palko's second TD throw to Lee.
Marcus Furman's 11-yard TD reception finished an eight-play,
93-yard drive, and Palko and 270-pound tight end Erik Gill teamed
on an 80-yard TD play on the final play of the third quarter to
make it 43-14.
In addition to securing the BCS bid, the Panthers avenged an
embarrassing loss to South Florida (4-7), which won the only other
meeting between the schools 35-26 in the Bulls' second game as a
Division I-A program three years ago.
"This is excellent," said Lee, who had eight receptions for
153 yards. "There's no question about us and the BCS bid. We did
what we had to do to get in there."
The last time Pitt won at least eight games three consecutive
seasons was 1981-83. The Panthers are headed to a bowl for the
fifth straight year, but haven't played on New Year's Day or later
since concluding the 1983 season in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio
South Florida, which finished its final season as a member of
Conference USA with a three-game losing streak, will move to the
Big East next year and found out how difficult that transition
Although the Bulls had plenty of success moving the ball, Pat
Julmiste was intercepted twice and Pitt forced two fumbles to stop
scoring threats. The Panthers also stopped another march inside
their 20 on downs.
Julmiste scored South Florida's first touchdown on a trick play,
catching a 16-yard TD pass from Andre Hall after the 1,300-yard
rusher took a pitchout and faked a handoff to receiver S.J. Green
on an end-around.
Clenton Crossley also scored on a 1-yard run for the Bulls, who
don't feel the final score is an indication of how they'll fare in
the Big East next season.
"Honestly, I think we can be competitive right away. I really
do," South Florida coach Jim Leavitt said.
"The key I think right now is our offense has got to get
better. We know that. But if we come out and play defense, we'll be
competitive right away."