11:00 AM ET, December 4, 2004
Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, FL
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 Connecticut.
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 Nov. 13.
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 State.
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 could be.
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."