So. Florida meets Pitt in Big East opener

After meeting in the past in Conference USA, Skip Holtz and Todd Graham are ready to face off for the first and possibly only time in the Big East.

Holtz and No. 16 South Florida go on the road Thursday night to take on Graham and Pittsburgh in the Big East season opener.

These coaches met three times in Conference USA action when first-year Panthers coach Graham guided Rice in 2006 and Tulsa from 2007-10, while Holtz was with East Carolina from 2005-09. Graham won the lone meeting at Rice before losing twice to Holtz’s Pirates with the Golden Hurricane.

While both coaches left for the lure of BCS conferences, only Graham and Pittsburgh (2-2) have a certain future with the school headed to the ACC. The fate of Holtz, South Florida and Big East football in general is unclear.

South Florida (4-0) is the lone unbeaten team in the conference, and also the only Big East team to beat a Top 25 opponent thanks to a season-opening victory at then-No. 16 Notre Dame.

Most sports books monitored by SportsOptions have South Florida as a 2 1/2-point road favorite, with the total set at 51 1/2.

The Bulls, though, went 3-4 in Big East play a year ago – losing their first two and last two games – to finish in a tie for fifth. That’s left them with plenty to prove even as they attempt to open with five consecutive wins for the fourth time in five seasons.

“It’s very important to start off well. We’re 4-0, but we still have a lot of season left and a lot of work to do,” quarterback B.J. Daniels said.

South Florida is second in the conference and 10th in the FBS with 45.5 points per game. Daniels has eight touchdown passes to one interception, and his 1,071 yards through the air are the conference’s second-highest total.

The Bulls racked up 575 yards – 373 on the ground – in beating UTEP 52-24 on Saturday, but kept the ball for a season-low 24:02 and didn’t seal it until a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns.

“You never take one for granted,” Holtz said. “You’re excited about the positive things that happened on the field. But you pinch yourself because you’ve got to do so many things better.”

The short week presents another challenge for South Florida, which normally uses Monday to focus solely on academics. A late-night practice Monday was to be followed by a normal session Tuesday ahead of Wednesday’s trip to Pittsburgh.

“It’s not only just having a condensed, shortened week, but it’s trying to work it around all the class schedules that we have for Monday,” Holtz told South Florida’s official website.

While South Florida’s signature win came in South Bend, Pittsburgh fell 15-12 to the Fighting Irish last Saturday at Heinz Field.

The Panthers blew a fourth-quarter lead in their second straight loss. They let a 17-point advantage slip away in a 31-27 defeat at Iowa on Sept. 17 before allowing Notre Dame to score the winning touchdown with 6:48 remaining last weekend.

“We have to learn to finish, and we’re going to,” quarterback Tino Sunseri said. “We’re so close.”

Sunseri completed 22 of 30 passes for a season-low 165 yards with one touchdown. He did not add to his total of four interceptions, tied for the most in the Big East.

“We feel like we are inches away from really busting this open and really being in that up-tempo offense and understanding it, and being able to put points on the board,” he said.

The Panthers have won three straight in the series to take a 5-3 lead. They won 17-10 on the road last year in a game in which Daniels and Sunseri both failed to reach 150 yards passing.

Pitt went 5-2 in Big East play each of the past three seasons, finishing in a three-way tie for first in 2010.

“Conference play is the big thing,” defensive tackle Chas Alecxih said. “We’re going to focus on that and with the short week, we’re really going to have to get going.”

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