Perhaps it’s time for us to readjust our expectations of this USF football team. A 44-17 defeat on the road at Pittsburgh on national television brought the Bulls back down to Earth and out of the rankings.
USF began the season unranked, picked up a milestone victory over Notre Dame on the road and then cruised to 4-0 without much more serious competition. The national media noticed the Bulls, voting them all the way to No. 16 in the Associated Press poll before conference play began.
But then an unranked Pittsburgh (3-2, 1-0) squad thoroughly outplayed a flat-footed USF team amid the rain at Heinz Field.
Pittsburgh running back Ray Graham picked up yardage at will, setting a personal record with 226 yards on 26 carries to go along with two touchdowns. Panthers quarterback Tino Sunseri put in a respectable night of work, throwing for 216 yards and one touchdown, as well as rushing for 35 yards and a score.
Most importantly, the Pittsburgh offense took proper care of the ball, fumbling on the first drive of the game – which turned into seven points for USF – but never turning it over again. USF has built its defense on a positive turnover margin this season. Through four games, the Bulls were plus-eight in turnover margin.
Without the benefit of turnovers, the defense was forced to stay on the field for long periods of time, with Pittsburgh possessing the ball for 36 minutes. As a result, the defense looked worn out and the tackling suffered.
The Bulls were in the game for the first half, trailing by three at the break, but the fatigue of playing on a short week with little practice time showed in the second half as the Panthers powered to a decisive win.
Still, the offense looked potent, posting 425 yards. Quarterback B.J. Daniels wasn’t as efficient as he had been in the previous four games, but he threw for 223 yards without turning the ball over. Wide receiver Sterling Griffin played well, catching five balls for 109 yards.
What must be remembered is that USF (4-1, 0-1) still only has one Big East loss. In the last eight years, only twice has a team gone undefeated to claim the conference crown – West Virginia in 2005 and Cincinnati in 2009.
Last season, Connecticut won the Big East on a tiebreaker after finishing the season level with both West Virginia and Pittsburgh. All three of those teams went 5-2 in the Big East.
The Big East is a competitive conference this season, with only West Virginia currently in the AP poll at No. 16, though both USF and Pittsburgh received votes.
If USF can use the upcoming bye week properly and get back on track Oct. 15 at Connecticut, the Bulls will still be one of the favorites to win their first Big East title and secure a berth in the lucrative Bowl Championship Series.
While the Bulls may not merit a ranking at this time and may not be ready to compete on the national scale, a Big East title is still within reach.