PITTSBURGH — Had it been remotely close, a second consecutive loss to another ranked opponent might not have been that demoralizing for USF, even after the Bulls' 5-0 start and another promising national ranking.
But the way the Bulls were dominated on Saturday, struggling all over the field in a 41-14 loss to No. 20 Pittsburgh, was downright deflating for USF and its fans in a way few individual games can be.
"They just whupped us. They were a much better team than us today," said coach Jim Leavitt, whose team has a short week before facing another ranked opponent, No. 23 West Virginia, on Friday. "We'll see what our team is all about. If they continue to play like this, we won't be successful this year. If they change, we have a chance."
USF (5-2, 1-2 Big East) came in as touchdown underdogs, but Pittsburgh made it clear by halftime it wouldn't be that close. Pitt scored on all five first-half possessions for a 31-7 halftime lead, with the Panthers' first nine drives all gaining at least 40 yards. USF, by comparison, gained 40 yards on just one of its 11 possessions.
On a day where the Panthers (7-1, 4-0) matched their best start since 1982, the Bulls made quarterback Bill Stull look like Dan Marino. Stull completed his first 11 passes for 166 yards and two touchdowns, deftly converting six of seven third downs against a defense that had been the nation's toughest on third downs just two weeks earlier. Freshman running back Dion Lewis ran for 111 yards and two touchdowns.
"We've been so good at third downs this year," defensive coordinator Joe Tresey said. "We just didn't play well today, period, end. You just can't let the ball go over your head like that and expect to win a football game. They had too many big plays today. … It really, really hurts a lot. This is tough."
USF's offense gained just 212 yards, its lowest total in more than four years, since totaling 174 in a 2005 loss at Miami. Pitt didn't blitz and kept defenders back in pass coverage, and freshman quarterback B.J. Daniels couldn't find enough openings to attempt passes. He threw only eight and completed four for 54 yards, while scrambling for a team-high 50 yards.
"When you're out of rhythm, you're out of rhythm," offensive coordinator Mike Canales said. "We've got to get him more reps in game situations. It's going to be a trying time, like a young kid. I'm sure it was very much like this with Matt (Grothe). … The more he sees it, the better he'll get. It's the growing pains we may be going through with B.J."
Daniels, who later threw two interceptions, hit freshman Sterling Griffin for a 41-yard gain. That set up Mike Ford's 3-yard touchdown, which cut Pittsburgh's lead to 14-7 in the second quarter. But Pitt scored on its next three drives, while the Bulls went three and out twice, leaving them down 31-7 at halftime.
"Our defensive backs and secondary, we had big letdowns, almost every single time. I don't recall them punting a single time," said linebacker Kion Wilson, who had a game-high 14 tackles. "We just can't allow that."
The Bulls needed a touchdown with 10 seconds left, from backup quarterback Evan Landi, to avoid their most lopsided conference loss in five years of Big East play — Rutgers beat USF by 33 last season.
Leavitt said he was "kind of surprised" by the outcome, such that the biggest question was which side of the ball disappointed him more.
"You want to play defense," he said. "We've played really poor defense since the second half of the Cincinnati game. … We haven't played defense, and if we're not going to play defense, we're not going to win. That's the first thing we have to get squared away."
Greg Auman can be reached at email@example.com and at (813) 226-3346. Check out his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/usf and follow him at Twitter.com/gregauman.