TAMPA, Fla. -- South Florida just doesn't have a whole lot of success when it's ranked in the Top Ten.
Last year, the Bulls rose to No. 2 in the country only to lose three straight games and drop out of the Big East title picture.
The Panthers (4-1, 2-0 Big East) have beaten the last three nationally ranked teams they have faced, including No. 23 Cincinnati and No. 2 West Virginia in 2007. They have won two of the last three games with South Florida (5-1, 0-1) in Tampa.
"West Virginia, obviously, is always going to be the best because they're our backyard rivals," Panthers coach Dave Wannstedt said. "But this, this is probably the closest it's going to get since I've been at Pitt."
The win was the fourth straight for Pittsburgh, which was ranked 25th in the preseason poll only to lose its opener to Bowling Green.
"I'm not going to go to the grave right now," Bulls coach Jim Leavitt said when asked what he would say to his team. "We're 5-1. We didn't play real well tonight. It's reality. That's the way it is.
"Nobody's gone through the Big East undefeated in all the years we've been in it. We've got to find a way to put it behind us."
Quarterback Matt Grothe accounted for most of South Florida's offense, but the Bulls didn't score any points on offense in the first half. Grothe was 11-of-20 for 129 yards and rushed 11 times for 25 yards, including a 1-yard keeper for a TD in the third.
Grothe threw a 22-yard touchdown pass to Jessie Hester in the fourth quarter to give the Bulls a 21-20 lead. But Pittsburgh came right back to take the lead, covering 60 yards on three plays in a quick drive that ended with a 3-yard run by McCoy. The 2-point attempt failed.
McCoy, a sophomore, rushed 28 times for a game-high 142 yards, his second straight game over 100.
Stull finished 16-of-27 for 228 yards.
Mike Ford ran 14 times for 73 yards for the Bulls.
"It's hard to go undefeated in college football," Grothe said. "They looked completely different than what they looked on film. I think they came a little bit more prepared than us. They backed us into a corner and made us do some things we didn't want to do."
South Florida struggled in the first half with the offense held to just 77 yards. Grothe was 5-of-12 with an interception. The pick by Don DeCicco was the first interception for Grothe in 107 passes and just his third in six games.
The Bulls had a 42-yard field goal attempt blocked by Greg Williams, and on their next field goal attempt, South Florida faked the kick but backup quarterback Grant Gregory failed to convert on fourth down.
"With all the mistakes we made in this game, I'm surprised [the score] wasn't farther apart than it was," Leavitt said. "We weren't in sync, I don't think, offensively, all game. We were kind of sporadic. Same on defense."
The Bulls scored first when Quenton Washington broke through untouched and blocked a punt by Dave Brytus. Charlton Sinclair picked up the fumble, returning it 27 yards for the score.
However, Pittsburgh scored on its next drive with Stull hitting receiver Jonathan Baldwin for a 52-yard touchdown pass.
The Panthers took a 14-7 lead on a 6-yard run by McCoy and extended the lead to 10 when Conor Lee hit a 35-yard field goal with 22 seconds left in the first half.
"In all, the offense is starting to come together," McCoy said. "That's the sign of a good team, and the win's great and we knew we could do it. We just can't think that far into the future and worry about the Big East because that will come."
Lee's 31-yard field goal made it 20-14 in the fourth.
All-America junior defensive end George Selvie did not start for the second straight game for South Florida, although he entered the game with 10:22 left in the second quarter and recorded two tackles, one for a loss.
South Florida forced two fumbles, both recovered by linebacker Kion Wilson, the first two of his career.