- Mark Schlabach, College Football Reporter
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TAMPA -- A year ago, South Florida climbed as high as No. 2 in the country before crashing and burning down the stretch.
The Bulls' place among college football's elite teams figures to be even shorter this season.
The No. 10 Bulls became the fifth top-10 team to fall in the last eight days, losing to Pittsburgh 26-21 at Raymond James Stadium on Thursday night. The Panthers are the fourth unranked opponent to upset a top-10 team since last week.
Pittsburgh sophomore LeSean McCoy ran 28 times for 142 yards and two touchdowns, including the winning 3-yard run with 4:43 to play. The Panthers sacked Bulls quarterback Matt Grothe four times and held him to only 25 rushing yards and 129 passing.
"I'm not going to the grave right now," South Florida coach Jim Leavitt said. "We're 5-1, and we didn't play well. We have to find a way to play better, that's reality."
The Bulls didn't even look like the best team in the Big East on Thursday night.
"It's just a great win for our kids, our coaches and our program," Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "A lot of things happened in that game -- the fake punt we don't make and the turnovers at midfield. There were a lot of things that could have made it flip the other way. But we just kept coming back and coming back."
The Panthers came back one last time because South Florida did something inexcusable. After the Bulls went ahead 21-20 on Grothe's 22-yard touchdown pass to Jessie Hester with a
5:57 to play, junior Delbert Alvarado booted the kickoff out of bounds.
Pitt's offense took over at its 40-yard line and needed only three plays to score. Quarterback Bill Stull threw a 38-yard pass to junior Oderick Turner, and then McCoy ran for 19 yards to the South Florida 3. McCoy ran for a touchdown on the next play, putting the Panthers ahead for good.
Entering its open date on Oct. 11, Pitt has a four-game winning streak and leads the Big East with a 2-0 record against conference foes. The Panthers have come from behind in the fourth quarter to win their last three games.
"We're a different team," McCoy said. "Last year, we couldn't win the close games. We couldn't find a way to win the close games. This year, the offense is coming together and the defense is playing well. We're finding ways to win the close games now."
The Panthers were largely left for dead after losing their opener to Bowling Green 27-17 on Aug. 30. That loss put Wannstedt back on the hot seat, after he failed to lead his alma mater to a bowl game in his previous three seasons.
"That game left an ugly taste in our mouths," said senior linebacker Scott McKillop. "Regardless of what everybody was saying about us -- that Pitt wasn't very good and that we were overrated -- we knew inside we were a good football team. We just had to go out and prove it."
Once again, South Florida had an opportunity to show the country it was ready to join college football's elite. And oddly enough, the Bulls lost their first game on Thursday night for the second year in a row. Rutgers upset South Florida 30-27 in Piscataway, N.J., in the Bulls' seventh game last season.
After losing to the Scarlet Knights, South Florida lost its next two games. The Bulls won three games in a row and then lost badly to Oregon 56-21 in the Sun Bowl. South Florida finished 9-4 in 2007.
With Grothe and All-America defensive end George Selvie coming back, the Bulls expected even bigger things this season. South Florida's 37-34 upset of Kansas on Sept. 12 only heightened expectations.
And when West Virginia lost two of its first three games, and Rutgers lost each of its first three contests, the Bulls looked like the team to beat in the Big East.
"Not only did we want to go unbeaten in the Big East, but we thought we could beat everybody on our schedule," Bulls linebacker Kion Wilson said.
If the Bulls don't get better on both sides of the ball, they might struggle to win the rest of their games. South Florida's offense was held to only 245 yards -- its lowest total in nearly two seasons. Twice in the second half, after the Panthers botched a fake punt and lost a fumble, the Bulls took over in Pittsburgh territory. South Florida went three-and-out both times.
Even Grothe was largely ineffective against Pittsburgh's defense. He was constantly under pressure and completed only 11 of 21 passes. Grothe also threw his first interception in 110 pass attempts.
"Grothe is going to make big plays because he's a great player," Wannstedt said. "But the big thing was keeping him out of the end zone. Our defensive line never let him get comfortable."
The South Florida defense didn't look comfortable, either. The Bulls committed 11 penalties, including seven in the first half, helping the Panthers take a 17-7 lead at the half.
"We made a lot of mistakes," Leavitt said. "We were fortunate to be in the game that close, to be quite honest, with all the mistakes we made in this game."
After Thursday's loss, the Bulls will be fortunate to approach the top 10 again anytime soon.
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
South Florida might have been the ranked team, but Pittsburgh and LeSean McCoy proved to be the real deal on Thursday, writes Mark Schlabach.