No. 16 South Florida bulled in 44-17 loss to Pitt
South Florida's Skip Holtz spent more than three hours Thursday night watching his 16th-ranked team - particularly its defense - get pushed around by Pittsburgh.
The second-year coach didn't feel the need to mince words about what he saw after the Panthers drilled the Bulls 44-17.
''It was an old-fashioned tail whipping is what it was,'' Holtz said.
So much for USF's hot start.
The Panthers (3-2, 1-0 Big East) kept USF quarterback BJ Daniels in check most of the night and ran all over the Bulls, piling up 307 yards on the ground while snapping a five-game losing streak to ranked opponents.
''Physically, I don't know that we were ready to accept the challenge that we were dealt today,'' Holtz said.
Particularly the one dealt by Pitt running back Ray Graham.
The junior piled up 223 yards on the ground, scored twice and consistently found holes when there didn't appear to be any.
''Whenever we face a player of that caliber, we've got to do a better job of coming out and containing him,'' USF linebacker Sam Barrington said.
Graham's 13-yard touchdown gave Pitt the lead for good late in the first half and his 8-yard sprint up the middle early in the fourth quarter sealed it as the Panthers beat the Bulls (4-1, 0-1) for the fourth straight time.
USF's offense moved the ball but couldn't get into the end zone. Daniels ran for 43 yards -- almost all of it coming on a last-gasp drive - and completed 18 of 36 passes for 223 mostly ineffective yards.
Pitt's defense sacked Daniels twice, including a fourth-down stop, and never let him get comfortable in the second half.
''They did a pretty good job containing the edges,'' Daniels said. ''We knew what they were going to do we just really didn't take advantage of it.''
Pitt had no such issues.
Quarterback Tino Sunseri threw for 216 yards and a score for the Panthers, who avoided a second-half meltdown for a third straight week and instead poured it on against the sloppy, inconsistent Bulls.
USF came in off to its fourth 4-0 start in the last five seasons. All that September promise, however, dissolved in the fall. None of the previous hot starts ended with a Big East title and a Bowl Championship Series berth.
The Bulls were hoping this is the year they finally break through. They survived against Notre Dame in the season opener, taking advantage of five turnovers to stun the Fighting Irish in South Bend.
Romps over Ball State, Florida A&M and UTEP followed. The Bulls viewed their trip to Heinz Field as a chance to show the nation they're a legit threat to perennial conference power West Virginia.
On Thursday, it was Pitt that looked like the real thing.
The Panthers have flirted with respectability this season under new coach Todd Graham. They led Iowa by 17 points in the second half and Notre Dame by five in the fourth quarter only to falter both times.
Todd Graham put the onus on his players, saying the problem with the offense is ''they're just not running it.'' He quickly backtracked, taking responsibility for the lack of impact plays.
His solution? Give the ball to his do-everything running back.
Ray Graham did it all, even returning kicks for the first time this season. If he wasn't making something out of nothing behind an injury-ravaged offensive line then he was making one-handed grabs on passing routes.
Even LeBron James was impressed. The NBA star called Graham a ''beast'' on his Twitter feed. His coach didn't exactly disagree.
''I thought it was his best performance,'' Todd Graham said. ''He's a complete back.''
Ray Graham had some help from an unlikely place. Sunseri, chastised by his coach for holding onto the ball too long during last week's loss to Notre Dame, showed Daniels wasn't the only quarterback who could make plays with his legs. The junior ran for 47 yards in the first half, taking advantage when the Bulls keyed on his backfield mate.
The Panthers took a 20-17 lead into halftime and this time, there would be no meltdown.
Instead, Pitt did what Todd Graham has preached since taking over last January: it hit the gas.
The Panthers scored touchdowns on each of their first two possessions of the second half. Sunseri hit Hubie Graham for a 12-yard touchdown out of a funky formation that had offensive tackle Juantez Hollins lined up in the slot.
They took a more conventional path during a 66-yard drive capped by a 2-yard plunge by Zach Brown that put Pitt up 34-17.
This time, the big lead would stick.
USF could get nothing going, and Ray Graham finished the Bulls off with three big runs on Pitt's last touchdown drive that ended with him high-stepping up the middle in the rain.