By TOM ZEBOLD
USF Senior Writer
PITTSBURGH – Sterling Griffin shined on the national stage, but USF hit its first bump in the road Thursday night with a 44-17 loss to Pitt before a crowd of 40,025 at Heinz Field.
Griffin recorded his first-career 100-yard receiving game with five catches for 109 yards in the No. 14 Bulls’ first loss of the season in five contests.
"Sterling has really been a becon of light for us in the receiving game," head coach Skip Holtz said.
Griffin missed all of last season with an injury and has bounced back to become the Bulls’ top receiving threat in 2011. He now leads all USF pass catchers with 27 receptions for 360 yards.
“It made me humble,” he said of the injury earlier this season. “I was hungrier going into the next season.”
The redshirt sophomore previously set a career high with a 97-yard performance against FAMU and topped that by the third quarter of USF’s Big East opener Thursday night.
The Bulls finished the night behind on the scoreboard, but started off ahead as usual.
Just like at Notre Dame, USF caused and recovered a fumble on its opponent’s opening drive in Bulls territory. Pitt was at the Bulls’ 33 when defensive end Ryne Giddins threw receiver Darius Patton for a 2-yard loss on a reverse, causing a fumble that linebacker Mike Jeune recovered at USF’s 48.
USF used the turnover to score first for the fifth straight time this season.
A nine-play, 52-yard drive was capped off in style when quarterback B.J. Daniels faked a draw to running back Darrell Scott and went 12 yards untouched to the end zone to help give the Bulls a 7-0 lead almost seven minutes into the game. The rushing TD was the 17th of Daniels’ career, which pushed the redshirt junior up to sixth place in USF’s history books for the category.
Pitt (3-2) took a page out of USF’s book to tie the game on the ensuing drive. The Panthers drove 77 yards downfield and evened things up with a 9-yard quarterback keeper by Tino Sunseri.
USF was forced to punt for the first time in a game’s opening quarter this season and ended up trailing for the first time in any quarter this year. Kevin Harper set a career long with a 47-yard field goal that put Pitt ahead, 10-7, with 2:11 remaining in the first quarter.
Harper added another field goal three minutes into the second quarter from 39 yards out to pump Pitt’s lead up to six. USF’s bend-but-don’t-break defense came up big on the drive that stalled because of a diving pass breakup by cornerback Quenton Washington on third down.
After two straight punts, USF needed a spark on offense and got one with the emergence of Demetris Murray in the second quarter.
The Bulls marched 80 yards to the end zone and grabbed the lead back on a 7-yard scoring run by Murray. The junior had six rushes on the drive for 36 yards and made two first downs, as USF took a 14-13 lead with 6:57 to go before halftime.
As expected, the Big East battle continued to go back and forth as Pitt continued to utilize its top weapon on offense.
Ray Graham caught two passes for 20 yards on the Panthers’ next drive and added four rushes for 22 yards. The junior gave Pitt a 20-14 lead with a 13-yard touchdown run that left just 1:43 on the clock before halftime.
That proved to be plenty of time for USF to strike back.
Sterling Griffin hauled in a 42-yard pass from Daniels and USF moved 63 yards in 77 seconds on its final drive before the break. Maikon Bonani finished it up by booting a 34-yard field goal that got the Bulls within three before they trotted to the locker room.
The score was close and so were the statistics at the break.
Pitt had a 155-127 advantage in rushing yards thanks to 102 by Graham, and both quarterbacks were over 100 passing yards with no interceptions. Both teams also excelled on third down (11-for-16 combined).
USF got the ball to start the second half, but Pitt widened the gap. Hubie Graham caught two straight passes inside Bulls territory and his second went for a 12-yard touchdown to give the Panthers a 27-7 lead about three and a half minutes into action.
The other Graham – Ray – was back to giving the Bulls fits on Pitt’s next drive. The back converted a third-and-13 with a 14-yard catch and followed it up with a 29-yard run.
"Graham is one of the best running backs in the country. He has proven that," Holtz said.
That set the Panthers up in the red zone and Zach Brown made it count with a 2-yard touchdown run that gave Pitt a 34-17 advantage with 4:55 remaining in the third quarter.
"We made way too many mistakes," Holtz said.
Pitt padded its lead to 41-17 in the fourth quarter with an 8-yard scoring run by Graham almost four minutes into the period that put him at 220 yards for the game.
"This will be a good film for us to go back and watch and find out where our liabilities are," said defensive coordinator Mark Snyder.
Harper added to his big kicking night with a 46-yarder that put the score at 44-17 with 4 minutes, 44 seconds remaining.