TAMPA — Maybe USF just wasn't meant to play football on Thursday nights.
For the second year in a row, the Bulls went into a primetime ESPN Thursday game with an undefeated record and big hopes, only to fall to the same weeknight weakness. This time, the No. 10 Bulls overcame poor play to take a lead with six minutes remaining, only to give up a quick touchdown and lose 26-21 to unranked Pittsburgh.
"We made a lot of mistakes," said USF coach Jim Leavitt, whose team was held to 245 yards of offense — its lowest in nearly two years — and committed 11 penalties in its Big East opener. "We were fortunate to be in the game that close, to be quite honest, with all the mistakes we made in this game."
For all their struggles, the Bulls (5-1, 0-1) drove 86 yards for a touchdown to take the lead 21-20 with 5:57 to play. Needing a defensive stop to preserve the win, USF instead watched Pittsburgh (4-1, 2-0) need only three plays to score the go-ahead touchdown.
"I told the defense when we went out there: This is what we get paid for," said linebacker Tyrone McKenzie, who had a game-high 15 tackles. "This is why we're a defense, let's go out and finish this thing. … You don't work so hard to go out there and just (pee) down your leg. We can't do that."
Pitt running back LeSean McCoy rushed for 142 yards and two touchdowns, including a 3-yard scoring run with 4:43 left. USF got the ball back twice, but couldn't muster a first down the first time, then saw a Hail Mary from midfield fall incomplete as time expired.
USF's hopes of an undefeated season are over, and the Bulls need to regroup to stay in Big East contention.
"One of the poorest exhibitions of tackling and coverage I've seen in a long time," defensive coordinator Wally Burnham said. "We have a long way to go and a lot of work to do if we're going to get this thing back on track, which I think we will. We've got good kids that want to win. We just have to work harder evidently."
USF's offense, which piled up 353 yards and 31 points in the first half at N.C. State last week, never got going, held to its lowest total yardage since an October 2006 loss at Cincinnati. Twice in the third quarter, after a botched fake punt and a forced fumble, USF took over in Pittsburgh territory and went three-and-out both times.
"We never clicked. We didn't play well all night," offensive coordinator Greg Gregory said.
The Bulls hurt themselves with penalties — eight in the first half, where they trailed 17-7 — and then there was a blocked field goal, a miss on a fake field goal, and giving up a 52-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter.
"They came out a little more prepared than us, I think," said Grothe, who had 129 yards passing and 25 rushing. "They looked completely different than what they looked on film. … It's hard to go undefeated in college football. It's just one game."
Down 20-14 in the fourth quarter, USF found its offense, with running back Mike Ford rushing seven times for 53 yards on one drive. Grothe rolled left, stopped and found receiver Jessie Hester wide-open for a 22-yard touchdown and a 21-20 lead.
As in close wins against Central Florida and Florida International, it appeared the Bulls might absolve themselves for disappointing play with a narrow win.
But the ensuing kickoff went out of bounds, setting up Pitt on its 40. Stull found receiver Oderick Turner for a 38-yard gain, then McCoy rushed for 19 yards to the 3, setting up his touchdown that silenced a Raymond James Stadium crowd of 50,307.
Last season, the Bulls were 6-0 and ranked No. 2 until they lost 30-27 to unranked Rutgers, setting off a three-game losing streak that dropped them out of the polls. USF now has its first bye week of the season, with an Oct. 18 home game against Syracuse next.
"Nobody's gone through the Big East undefeated (since West Virginia in 2005)," Leavitt said. "We've got to find a way to put it behind us, move forward and get ready to play, use the bye week wisely."