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Surging 16th-ranked USF wary of Pittsburgh
PITTSBURGH (AP) - Skip Holtz isn't big on history, abbreviated as it may be at South Florida.
Respect it? Sure. Use it to gauge his team's future prospects? Not really.
The second-year coach doesn't care that the 16th-ranked Bulls (4-0) have lost three straight games to Pitt (2-2), a fact he insisted he didn't know when brought to his attention earlier this week.
"The 2011 football team has not played the Pitt team," Holtz said. "Whether we're 0-92 is irrelevant."
USF's situation is not quite that dire, though its last visit to Heinz Field was a nightmarish 41-14 loss in 2009.
Holtz was still coaching at East Carolina then, and is quick to point out most of the impact players who will take on the Panthers in the Big East opener on Thursday weren't on the field that night.
The Bulls have become road warriors of sorts under Holtz, winning at Miami, Louisville and Cincinnati last season before adding Notre Dame to the list with a 23-20 win on Sept. 3.
Three straight blowouts against overmatched opponents have followed. The smarting Panthers should be a significantly tougher test despite a pair of fourth-quarter letdowns in losses to Iowa and Notre Dame.
The "high octane" offense coach Todd Graham promised when he took over is only operating sporadically. Pitt's longest pass play went for all of 18 yards and quarterback Tino Sunseri spent most of the game scrambling behind a makeshift offensive line.
Graham placed some of the blame at the feet of his players on Monday, chastising quarterback Tino Sunseri for holding onto the ball too long and hinting the receivers are running the wrong routes.
He's since backtracked, stressing "we're not pointing fingers, and you'll never hear excuses coming for me."
If the Panthers can't turn it around soon, there's no telling which direction the fingers will go.
Pitt viewed the stretch of three games in 12 days to end September as chance to make a statement. After limping to the finish in consecutive weeks, they're simply hoping to keep their season afloat.
"We had a goal to win the national championship, and we fell short of that," Pitt running back Ray Graham said. "But we also have a goal to win the Big East. We still have high expectations with that, and we still can do that. So, that's what we're concentrating on right now."
And they're concentrating on it with Sunseri. Though the Panthers have inserted freshman Trey Anderson into the lineup occasionally, he remains a part of the team's future. Sunseri is the present.
"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?"
Follow AP Sports Writer Will Graves on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/WillGravesAP
By Tammy Bruce
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