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 a disappointing loss.
This time for No. 16 USF, it was 44-17 in the Big East opener to a Pittsburgh team that had lost its past two games.
As much as USF coach Skip Holtz said the past 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 its opening losses in four of the past five seasons. It also dropped its fourth straight to Pitt.
"We couldn't get off the field against a very good football team. It was an old-fashioned tail-whupping is what it was," said Holtz, whose team allowed the most points of his 18-game tenure.
USF (4-1), which forced five turnovers at Notre Dame but gave up 500-plus yards, validated the concerns from Saturday's 52-24 win against UTEP, unable to stop Ray Graham or 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 until the third quarter.
"They drove it. They ran it down our throat," USF 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 started well for the Bulls. On the opening drive, after two quick first downs for Pitt, defensive end Ryne Giddins forced a fumble the Bulls recovered. USF then drove 52 yards for a 7-0 lead, evoking memories of the opening win at Notre Dame.
It marked the only time USF stopped the Panthers from scoring for more than a half as they piled up 273 yards by halftime, including 102 by Graham.
USF stayed close early, twice holding the Panthers (3-2) 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 to Sterling Griffin.
"What was more disappointing was not getting the ball in the end zone, sustaining drives, meeting our goals on third down," said USF 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? Not with Pitt's playmakers still on the field.
After USF went three-and-out, Sunseri hit tight end Hubie Graham for a 12-yard touchdown. On Pitt's next drive, running back Zach Brown scored to make it 34-17. The Panthers finished with 523 yards on 91 plays, controlling the ball for 36:10 compared with 23:50 for USF.
The Bulls now have a long while with this loss lingering — 16 days until 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, 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."