PITTSBURGH (AP)—Bill Stull rarely hears himself mentioned in the same sentence as Dan Marino. He is now. Stull is one of college football’s biggest surprises and, if Pitt Panthers keep playing this way, they might be, too.
Stull threw for two touchdowns, Dion Lewis ran for two and No. 20 Pitt scored on all five possessions in the first half to rout South Florida 41-14 on Saturday and extend its best start in 27 years.
The Panthers (4-0 in Big East) opened up a 31-7 lead at halftime in improving to 7-1 for the first time since 1982—Marino’s senior season and the last time Pittsburgh was ranked No. 1.
“I don’t how it could have come together any better than what happened today,” coach Dave Wannstedt said.
Pitt made what was expected to be a difficult game look easy as Stull completed his first 11 passes against a Bulls defense that appeared geared to stopping Lewis, a freshman who came in No. 3 nationally in rushing. After that, Lewis took over and ran for 111 yards in three quarters to push his season’s total to 1,029 yards.
“A defense cannot serve two masters,” Stull said. “If you try to stop our running game, we’re going to be able to make some big plays through the air and vice versa.”
Stull, whose senior season statistics to date exceed Marino’s, hit Jonathan Baldwin for completions of 40, 34 and 35 yards while repeatedly finding receivers open by several steps behind South Florida defenders. Baldwin made six catches for 144 yards, while Stull was 18 of 25 for 245 yards and two scores and wasn’t sacked once.
Stull, a senior who played so poorly at the end of last season he was forced to compete for his starting job during spring ball, has 16 touchdown passes and only four interceptions. Marino threw for 17 TDs as a senior.
“It’s his confidence,” tight end Dorin Dickerson said. “He goes out there every game, straight-faced, and doesn’t worry about nothing else but playing, and it shows.”
Pitt leads the Big East and is in position to win 10 games for the first time since the 1981 Panthers went 11-1. However, the three biggest games of the season await in Notre Dame and No. 22 West Virginia next month and No. 5 Cincinnati on Dec. 5.
“We always talk about wanting to get all cylinders rolling and today we took a first step toward that,” Stull said. “It’s great that we’re starting to play better and better toward the end of the season.”
Lewis and Stull were pulled along with most of the Panthers’ regulars with Pitt ahead 34-7. Lewis, who has five 100-yard games, is only the fourth Pitt freshman to rush for 1,000 yards in a season, joining Tony Dorsett (1973), Curvin Richards (1988) and LeSean McCoy (2007).
“It’s nice, but I’m not really thinking about that stuff,” Lewis said.
South Florida (5-2, 1-2) repeatedly hurt itself early with penalties—the Big East’s most-penalized team drew the game’s first eight penalties and ended with 71 penalty yards—and never got into an offensive rhythm. The Bulls have been outscored 75-31 in losses to Cincinnati (34-17) and Pitt after moving into the Top 25.
“They just whupped up. They whupped us,” coach Jim Leavitt said. “They’re a better team than we are right now. … We’ve got to play defense, and we didn’t play defense. We’ve played really poor defense since the second half of the Cincinnati game.”
The Bulls had as many penalty yards (40) as offensive yards (40) late in the first quarter and ended up being outgained 486-212.
Stull was repeatedly given time to throw by an offensive line that effectively controlled Bulls pass rushers George Selvie and Jason Pierre-Paul. He found Dickerson for 20 and 22 yards on Pitt’s first possession to set up his 2-yard scoring pass to backup tight end Mike Cruz, the freshman’s first college catch. Dickerson later made his ninth TD catch of the season.
“We were surprised how much they passed,” Selvie said. “We didn’t have any pressure and they were able to find guys deep.”
Pitt went ahead 14-0 on Stull’s 40-yard scoring pass to Baldwin on an improvised pass route. South Florida answered with Mike Ford’s 3-yard TD run, but Pitt needed only six plays to make it 21-7 on Lewis’ 1-yard run.
Later in Pitt’s 24-point second quarter, Lewis’ 48-yard run set up his second 1-yard TD run.
By winning, the Panthers assured themselves of a second consecutive bowl appearance, the first time they’ve done that since 2003-04.