All too familiar: USF routed 44-17 by Pitt
PITTSBURGH -- Forgive us if you've heard this before.
A promising September start, a solid rise in the rankings, a Thursday night spotlight on ESPN. And unfortunately for No. 16 USF, another disappointing loss, this time a 44-17 humbling in the Big East opener at the hands of a Pittsburgh team that had lost its last two games.
As much as Skip Holtz said the past storylines should have no impact on this game, there were a lot of familiar refrains. USF dropped to 0-7 on Thursday night games since joining the Big East, including their opening losses in four of the last five seasons. The Bulls dropped their fourth straight game to Pittsburgh, missing a chance to bid proper farewell to the Panthers, who are headed to the ACC at some point, along with Syracuse.
"We couldn't get off the field against a very good football team. It was an old-fashioned tail-whupping is what it was," Holtz said.
USF's defense -- which forced five turnovers at Notre Dame but gave up 500-plus yards -- validated the concerns in last week's 52-24 win against UTEP, unable to stop Pitt running back Ray Graham, or even quarterback Tino Sunseri. Graham rushed for 226 yards and two scores, and Sunseri helped the Panthers convert seven of their first 10 third downs, not needing to punt once until the third quarter.
"It's tough. They drove it. They ran it down our throat," safety Jerrell Young said. "We couldn't get off the field on third down. It's tough when you know you've got them and you've got them, but third down and they keep the chains moving. It's at a good time, with (16) days to get ourselves together."
It had started well for the Bulls -- on the opening drive, after two quick first downs for Pitt, USF defensive end Ryne Giddins forced a fumble that the Bulls recovered, then drove 52 yards for a 7-0 lead, evoking memories of the Bulls' opening win at Notre Dame. It would mark the only time USF's defense stopped the Panthers for scoring for more than a half, as Pitt piled up 273 yards by halftime, including 102 by Graham.
USF had stayed close early, however, twice holding the Panthers to field goals, and Demetris Murray gave the Bulls a 14-13 lead in the second quarter with a 7-yard run. Pitt answered with an 82-yard touchdown drive, and the Bulls trailed 20-17 at halftime, getting a late field goal after a 42-yard pass play to Sterling Griffin.
"What was more disappointing was not getting the ball in the end zone, sustaining drives, meeting our goals on third down. That's what's disappointing," said quarterback B.J. Daniels, who threw for 223 yards and ran for an early score.
Could USF's defense make halftime adjustments, as it did against UTEP on Saturday? Not with Pitt's playmakers still on the field. Sunseri hit tight end Hubie Graham for a 12-yard touchdown, and on the next drive, running back Zach Brown added a touchdown for a 34-17 lead. It had been more than a year since USF gave up that many points, in a 38-14 loss at Florida. Another Graham touchdown reset that mark in the fourth quarter, and Pitt's scoring total was the third-most allowed since the Bulls joined the Big East in 2005 -- Rutgers scored 49 in 2008, Oregon 56 in 2007. The Panthers finished with 523 yards on 91 offensive plays, controlling the ball for more than 36 minutes, compared to 23:50 for USF.
And while USF's offense did not have any turnovers until the fourth quarter, they couldn't match the record-breaking three-game run that saw them top 500 yards against three lesser opponents.
The Bulls now have a long while with this loss lingering -- 16 days until they next play, with a bye week before they travel to Connecticut, another place they've struggled in the past. Holtz's challenge is to make sure one disappointing loss doesn't carry over to another -- USF is 3-3 after Thursday losses since 2007.
"Physically, I don't know that we were ready to accept the challenge we were dealt today, especially from a defensive standpoint," Holtz said. "We knew what we were going to get. I told them all week it was going to be a fistfight, a heavyweight fight, physical, a war. That's the way Pitt has always played, and it was."