PITTSBURGH -- Ray Graham ran so hard against South Florida, even LeBron James noticed.
The NBA superstar took to Twitter to praise the Pittsburgh running back, who torched the 16th-ranked Bulls for 226 yards and two scores in a 44-17 victory. James called Graham "a beast."
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Call James among the latest group of believers in the junior, a group that includes USF coach Skip Holtz, who didn't hesitate to praise Graham for the way he repeatedly slashed his way through the Bulls' defense.
"Once he got in space, he'd make you miss," Holtz said. "He's quicker than he is fast and he's very elusive. ... If he can get on the perimeter, he can hurt you."
Graham hurt the Bulls (4-1, 0-1 Big East) all night and gave the Panthers (3-2, 1-0) a much-needed boost after consecutive crushing losses to Iowa and Notre Dame.
"I felt we really executed that Pitt offense," Graham said, "the high-octane offense that we have here. We finally did it."
Graham's 13-yard touchdown gave Pitt the lead for good late in the first half and his 8-yard sprint up the middle early in the fourth quarter sealed it as the Panthers broke a five-game losing streak against ranked opponents.
"I thought it was his best performance," Pitt coach Todd Graham said. "He's a complete back."
Graham added four receptions for 42 yards and even returned kickoffs, a duty he insisted on after the Panthers struggled in the return game early.
"The kid's competitiveness is off the charts," Todd Graham said.
Pitt kept USF's BJ Daniels under wraps all night. One of the nation's top duel-threat quarterbacks couldn't get it going with his arm or legs. Daniels ran for 43 yards -- almost all of it coming on a last-gasp drive -- and completed 18 of 36 passes for 223 mostly ineffective yards.
The Panthers hadn't beaten a ranked opponent since handling the then-No. 10 Bulls in 2008. Five straight losses against quality competition followed, helping lead to former coach Dave Wannstedt's retirement at the end of last season.
New coach Todd Graham came in promising to put together the kind of fireworks lacking during the end of the Wannstedt era. Graham has dubbed his system "high octane" and after a month of sputtering, the Panthers delivered a dynamic performance.
"I've said all along we've got a good football team," Todd Graham said. "We made great strides tonight by playing a complete football game."
And doing it by completely manhandling the Bulls. Pitt held the ball for over 36 minutes, ran for 307 yards and converted 9 of 15 third downs.
"It was an old-fashioned tail whipping is what it was," Holtz said.
Tino Sunseri threw for 216 yards and a score for the Panthers, who avoided a second-half meltdown for a third straight week and instead poured it on against the sloppy, inconsistent Bulls.
USF came in off to their fourth 4-0 start in its last five seasons. All that September promise, however, dissolved in the fall. None of the previous hot starts ended with a Big East title and a Bowl Championship Series berth.
The Bulls were hoping this is the year they finally break through. They survived against Notre Dame in the season opener, taking advantage of five turnovers to stun the Fighting Irish in South Bend.
Romps over Ball State, Florida A&M and UTEP followed. The Bulls viewed their trip to Heinz Field as a chance to show the nation they're a legit threat to perennial conference power West Virginia.
On Thursday, it was Pitt that looked like the real thing. The Panthers' ability to turn third downs into first downs eventually wore out South Florida's defense.
"Physically, I don't know that we were ready to accept the challenge that we were dealt today," Holtz said.
The Panthers have flirted with respectability this season under Todd Graham. They led Iowa by 17 points in the second half and Notre Dame by five in the fourth quarter only to falter both times.
Todd Graham put the onus on his players, saying the problem with the offense is "they're just not running it." He quickly backtracked, taking responsibility for the lack of impact plays.
His solution? Give the ball to his do-everything running back.
Ray Graham did it all. If he wasn't making something out of nothing behind an injury-ravaged offensive line then he was making one-handed grabs on passing routes.
Graham had some help from an unlikely place. Sunseri, chastised by his coach for holding onto the ball too long during last week's loss to Notre Dame, showed Daniels wasn't the only quarterback who could make plays with his legs. The junior ran for 47 yards in the first half, taking advantage when the Bulls keyed on his backfield mate.
The Panthers took a 20-17 lead into halftime and this time, there would be no meltdown.
Instead, Pitt did what Todd Graham has preached since taking over last January: it hit the gas.
The Panthers scored touchdowns on each of their first two possessions of the second half. Sunseri hit Hubie Graham for a 12-yard touchdown out of a funky formation that had offensive tackle Juantez Hollins lined up in the slot.
They took a more conventional path during a 66-yard drive capped by a 2-yard plunge by Zach Brown that put Pitt up 34-17.
This time, the big lead would stick.
USF could get nothing going, and Ray Graham finished the Bulls off with three big runs on Pitt's last touchdown drive that ended with him high-stepping up the middle in the rain.
"I feel like we're close," Todd Graham said. "It's just one game but all of us are really coming together."