TAMPA — Looking for another landmark upset of a top-10 team, Pitt put the ball in the hands of LeSean McCoy and let its star sophomore tailback carry the Panthers to victory.
McCoy rushed for a game-high 142 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winner on a 3-yard run with 4:43 remaining to lead the Panthers to a 26-21 victory over No. 10 South Florida in an ESPN nationally televised Big East game before 50,307 at Raymond James Stadium.
It was clinched when a desperation pass from Matt Grothe was knocked down near the goal line as time expired. It was Pitt’s second victory over a top-10 team in its past six games, following a season-ending 13-9 win at West Virginia on Dec. 1. After a season-opening loss to Bowling Green, the Panthers (4-1, 2-0) are now frontrunners for the conference crown.
USF dropped to 5-1, 0-1.
The victory was the third consecutive in the come-from-behind variety in the fourth quarter, as the Panthers watched their 17-7 halftime lead disappear. USF entered the game as the Big East’s No. 1 offense, but Pitt outgained the Bulls, 374-245, and held a 36:54-to-22:58 time-of-possession advantage.
Grothe threw a 22-yard touchdown pass to Jessie Hester to give the Bulls a 21-20 lead with 5:57 remaining. The pass capped a nine-play, 86-yard scoring drive behind tailback Mike Ford, who had six carries for 54 yards, including three consecutive 9-yarders and a 12-yarder.
After a series of methodical drives, Pitt responded with a quick-strike offense. Bill Stull completed a 38-yard pass to Oderick Turner and McCoy broke a 19-yard to set up his touchdown for a 26-20 lead. The Panthers attempted a two-point conversion, but it failed when Stull fumbled.
But Pitt’s defense came up big on a late drive for the third consecutive game, as nose tackle Rashaad Duncan, middle linebacker Scott McKillop and strong safety Dom DeCicco combined to force Grothe into throwing it away, which drew a costly intentional grounding penalty.
McCoy was held to a career-low 55 rushing yards on 18 carries against the Bulls last season, but equaled that effort on only 12 carries in the first half against the Big East’s No. 1 run defense. He finished with his second consecutive 100-yard effort and ninth of his career on 28 carries.
USF scored first when Quenton Washington blocked a Dave Brytus punt and Charlton Sinclair recovered and scored on a 27-yard return to give the Bulls a 7-0 lead with 8:07 remaining in the first quarter. Washington had earlier drawn a 15-yard personal foul penalty for roughing the kicker.
Stull found Baldwin streaking along the visitor sideline, several steps ahead of cornerback Tyller Roberts for a 52-yard touchdown pass that tied the game at 7-7 with 5:54 remaining.
McCoy’s 6-yard touchdown run with 4:59 left in the first half capped a 16-play, 72-yard drive, which included a fourth-down conversion and saw the Bulls whistled for three penalties inside their own 15. McCoy scored one play after he was called for a false start on a second-and-goal at the 1 to nullify a scoring pass from Stull to Dorin Dickerson.
The Panthers twice stopped USF drives in Pitt territory, the first when Greg Williams blocked Maikon Bonani’s 42-yard field-goal attempt and the second when McKillop stopped holder Grant Gregory 4 yards short of the first-down marker on a fake field goal.
The Panthers responded with the death march that saw USF draw a holding penalty and a pair of personal fouls, the first for a late hit on tailback LaRod Stephens-Howling at the 10 and the other for pass interference against receiver Jonathan Baldwin in the corner of the end zone.
Pitt took a 17-7 lead into halftime on Conor Lee’s 35-yard field goal with 22 seconds remaining in the second quarter.
USF opened the second half with an 11-play, 76-yard touchdown drive that featured a pair of third-down conversions and a 38-yard pass from Grothe to A.J. Love along the home sideline to the Pitt 16. Two plays after Pitt linebacker Austin Ransom was called for holding, Grothe scored on a 1-yard run to cut it to 17-14 with 9:27 remaining in the third quarter.
Pitt twice had the ball near midfield. The Panthers attempted a fake punt on fourth-and-4 at their own 48, but Dave Brytus’ pass to Conredge Collins went for no gain. Pitt later had a turnover when defensive end Jarrett Buie sacked Stull, and linebacker Kion Wilson recovered at the Pitt 46.