Though it still ranks first in the American Athletic Conference in total defense (319.3), USF's second-half performance in its last two games has imperiled its perch.
The Bulls have allowed 49 total points after halftime against Tulane and Houston, low-lighted by Cougars QB D'Eriq King's game-winning 20-yard fourth-quarter touchdown run with 11 seconds to play.
So what has happened with USF's defense late in games? Defensive coordinator Brian Jean-Mary believes it's about execution, or lack thereof.
"I know the scores have kind of picked up in the second half, but it's really come down to fundamental errors more than just defensive assignments and stuff like that," Jean-Mary said after Wednesday's practice. "(The issue has) been more about tackling and getting off blocks."
USF's defense gave up four plays of 30-plus yards in the second half against Houston, opposed to none in the first.
"If you watch the game, we broke it down —- it was five big plays," Jean-Mary said.
"Outside of those five big plays, we felt like we played decent in the second half. It wasn't like they (Houston) methodically went down the field. It was the big plays, and that can come down to tackling and being assignment-sound."
THIRD-AND-IMPROBABLE: While King's 30-yard rollout pass to Courtney Lark on fourth-and-24 on Houston's winning drive will live in USF infamy, his scoring run was no easier for Jean-Mary to digest.
With 19 seconds to play and no timeouts, King rolled to the left to pass on third down, but saw nobody open. He then improvised, reversing field and cutting upfield all the way into the USF end zone, with only a diving Auggie Sanchez able to get a hand on him.
It was a risky play, according to Jean-Mary, but one that handed USF its first loss of 2017 nonetheless.
"We assumed what they were going to do," Jean-Mary said. "They were going to try to sprint him out like they did on fourth down, and if the throw wasn't there, he was probably supposed to throw it away so they could get their field goal team on. He kind of improvised and we probably overplayed that scenario."
Had King been tackled ahead of the first-down marker, the Cougars probably wouldn't have had time to get their field-goal unit on. Since the next play would've been fourth down, he couldn't have spiked the ball.
"He's a young kid. It's probably a learning experience for him, but they won the game with it," Jean-Mary said. "I always said, it's great to coach after a win. They can probably teach him to throw the ball away or something like that next time, but they won the game with that."
ON THE CLOCK: Among the many sore spots festering in Bulls fans' collective psyche in the wake of Saturday's loss was perceived poor clock management down the stretch.
Prime example: On the Bulls' final drive, 16 seconds remained on the play clock when they ran their third-and-8 play, a 4-yard D'Ernest Johnson run (USF's sixth consecutive run play). When Emilio Nadelman followed with a 30-yard field goal, 1:46 remained in the game.
"Just got to be aware of it and just see," offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert said.
"That's obviously something you can be good with and be better with. But at the end of the day, you've got to go execute. That's what we needed to do at that moment. Rather than getting three, you'd like to go down there and score (a TD) in that situation."
RECORD WATCH: With seven tackles Saturday at Connecticut, senior MLB Auggie Sanchez — a Northeast High alumnus — will surpass Kawika Mitchell for the school's career mark.
Sanchez, sitting at 361 tackles, also will be making his 47th career start, placing him alone at No. 3 on the school's alltime list behind DeDe Lattimore (49) and George Selvie (50).
"It's an unbelievable feat," Jean-Mary said.
"Any time you're tackling the football, no matter if it's for a 1-yard gain or you're hustling and getting it for a 10- or 15-yard gain, it's about drive, determination, just passion for the game. And for him to hit the football as many times as he has tells you what kind of player he is."
TIGHT END SIGHTING? Through eight games, the heralded tight end tandem of Mitchell Wilcox and Kano Dillon has combined for 18 receptions, only two shy of its 2016 total. Problem is, fans expected the pair's production to spike this season.
The two have combined for only three catches in the last two games. Subtract the Cincin"nati contest, when each had three receptions, and the pair has teamed for seven catches in the last five contests.
"We throw the ball to Kano and Wilcox; I think one game they both had three apiece," Strong said. "But the tight ends are always big in our offense, and we're gonna always try to find a way to get him the ball, 'cause those guys are very athletic."
Gilbert essentially echoed Strong's statement.
"Just whenever we've got an opportunity to utilize those guys, we can," he said. "Those are guys we obviously like in both aspects. We feel good about those guys."
ODDS AND ENDS: Nadelman needs one field goal Saturday to tie Santiago Gramatica (38) for second place on USF's career list. Maikon Bonani owns the record (69), which may never be approached. … With 27 career victories as USF's starting quarterback, Quinton Flowers needs one more to tie Matt Grothe for second place in school history. Marquel Blackwell (30) has the Bulls record. … Senior DT Deadrin Senat is averaging 7.75 tackles over his last four games, highlighted of course by career-best 12 tackles (four for loss) against Houston.
Times correspondent Josh Fiallo contributed to this report.