TAMPA, Fla. - Now that it's bowl eligible, Pittsburgh can be picky without sounding unappreciative.
The Panthers spent the past two Januarys in Alabama for the BBVA Compass Bowl and could wind up there again after beating South Florida, 27-3, Saturday night to guarantee themselves a fifth consecutive postseason trip.
Then again, Ray Graham wouldn't mind a change in the routine.
"Any bowl, except Birmingham," the star running back said, laughing. "Oh, man, three times in a row? I think they might kick us out. They might not even allow us in there."
Graham rushed for a pair of touchdowns and went over 1,000 yards, while Tino Sunseri threw for 211 yards and one TD for the Panthers (6-6, 3-4 Big East) to join Graham in giving Pitt a 3,000-yard passer and 1,000-yard rusher in the same season for the first time in school history.
"Those are individual accomplishments, but really team things, and that you do appreciate," Panthers coach Paul Chryst said. "You don't take any of that for granted, but a lot of guys can take pride in those numbers."
USF (3-9, 1-6) finished its second straight losing season by losing nine of 10 following a 2-0 start, a slide that could cost coach Skip Holtz his job. A year ago, the Bulls dropped seven of eight following a 4-0 start that vaulted them into the Top 25 before a 44-17 loss to Pitt.
Holtz stopped short of saying he expects to be back for a fourth season, but expressed hope that he will while reiterating that the Bulls were beset by injuries and have made strides in ways that are not necessarily reflected in their record.
"But I also understand that we've put some people in a very tough position with where we are, and I understand the nature of this business is to win games," Holtz said. "People don't really care if you're on a fourth quarterback, your fifth defensive end or how many freshmen you're playing. They want to win."
The coach said he expects to meet with athletic director Doug Woolard as early as Sunday to evaluate the season and where the Bulls head from here.
"We've worked hard for the last three years to build this program. It's just really frustrating that we've been through the type of season that we went through, but I'd certainly like to (be back)," Holtz said. "I'd like to see these young players develop into what I know that they can become."
Graham scored on a pair of 1-yard runs, Sunseri tossed a 2-yard TD pass to J.P. Holtz, and a Pitt defense that's allowed just nine points the past two weeks held USF to 117 yards and forced four turnovers, including three interceptions of Matt Floyd in the redshirt freshman's second career start.
Pitt bounced back from losing its first two games to Youngstown State and Cincinnati to qualify for a postseason berth for the fifth straight season. Along the way, the Panthers gave top-ranked Notre Dame its toughest test before losing in triple overtime. They also rebounded from a disappointing loss to Connecticut to upset Rutgers 21-6 and put themselves in a position to extend their first season under Chryst.
"It was good to win. I'm proud of the players," Chryst said. "We certainly went through a lot of things this season, but still found a way to earn a right to play another game, and I appreciate that."
Despite forcing turnovers on the Bulls' first three possessions of the game, Pitt only led 13-0 at the half. Jason Hendricks' interception and 10-yard return to the USF 21 set up Graham's TD and a sack-fumble led to Kevin Harper's 25-yard field goal early in the second quarter.
USF failed to take advantage of Marcus Shaw's long kickoff return to the Pitt 48 when Floyd was intercepted for the second time after moving his team to third-and-goal at the Panthers 5. Linebacker Todd Thomas broke on a throw intended for Demetris Murray and returned the pick 33 yards up the left sideline.
Sunseri extended his streak of consecutive passing attempts without an interception to 270. However, Pitt failed to establish much of a rhythm on offense before getting in the end zone twice within a five-minute stretch of the third quarter. Graham's second TD put the Panthers up by 20, and Sunseri's 19th TD pass of the season made it 27-0.
"I felt like we kind of beat ourselves up with the penalties and stuff," Sunseri said, "and as soon as we started to straighten that out we were able to drive the football."
USF fell to 16-21 under Holtz, who led the Bulls to an 8-5 record and their sixth consecutive bowl trip two years ago. He inherited a program built from scratch with expectations of contending for Big East titles, but has gone 5-16 in the conference.
An announced crowd of 35,141 that appeared much smaller booed when USF's career scoring leader Maikon Bonani trotted onto the field to kick a 25-yard field goal to avert a shutout.
Sunseri finished 19 of 25 and boosted his season passing total to 3,103. Graham gained 94 yards on 26 carries, topping 1,000 rushing for the first time in his career early in the second half and ending the night with 1,042.
Pitt beat USF for the fifth straight season and has won the past two contests by a combined score of 71-20 - 51-3 over the past six quarters of those meetings.
Floyd completed 12 of 25 passes for 93 yards. The Bulls were held to 8 yards rushing.