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“I can’t emphasize enough that Tino is our quarterback,” Todd Graham said. “He has a tough job, but what makes a season is a great team.”

The Bulls have certainly looked like one at times, particularly on offense. USF is averaging more than 45 points a game and put up 70 and 52 in wins against Florida A&M and UTEP. Quarterback BJ Daniels is quietly having a breakout season. The junior leads the Big East in pass efficiency and is second in total offense and touchdowns.

Pitt’s defense pushed around Notre Dame’s potent offense last weekend but couldn’t get off the field in the fourth quarter as the Irish drove for the game-winning score and the Panthers have yet to face a quarterback with Daniels’ ability to get outside the pocket.

Not exactly encouraging news for a unit that’s allowed 49 points in the fourth quarter this season even if the players believe conditioning is not an issue.

“I don’t think we’re getting tired out there,” Pitt defensive back Jarred Holley said. “We just have to be mentally tough and do what we’re coached to do. It’s been a learning process every week, but we just have to keep at it and keep getting better every week.”

And get better quickly, though Graham allows defense is hardly the problem. He has been outspoken about his belief the Panthers can adapt to his uptempo offense on the fly and dismisses the notion a transition period is necessary before his team looks like a finished product.

The growing pains have made a fanbase eager for the program to breakthrough after years of near misses under Dave Wannstedt a little restless.

The Bulls are no stranger to disappointment. They’ve started 4-0 four times in the last five years but have yet to win a conference championship.

Holtz was brought in to help USF take the next step. Winning on the road in a hostile environment against a conference rival could go a long way to showing the Bulls are for real.

Not that he’s ready to think that far down the road. For Holtz, there is only the precious present.

“Where we’re going in the future is irrelevant,” he said. “It’s going to be what goes on in between the lines. What is our focus like and how do we play this game on Thursday night?”

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Follow AP Sports Writer Will Graves on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/WillGravesAP