Bulls open Big East with 13-9 loss to Syracuse
TAMPA -- As bad as USF was playing, as nonexistent as the offense was, the Bulls still held a 9-6 lead on Syracuse early in the fourth quarter Saturday when a punt was downed on the Syracuse 2-yard line.
But the Bulls' defense, which had contained the Orange all afternoon, allowed a 98-yard, 14-play march down the field, with Ryan Nassib throwing a 3-yard touchdown to Marcus Sales to give the Orange a 13-9 lead. USF's offense had two chances to answer -- once from its own 2-yard line -- but the Bulls couldn't even cross their own 40, and Syracuse opened Skip Holtz's first Big East season with a significant win at Raymond James Stadium.
"We definitely had plenty of opportunities today," said Holtz, whose team now has just five days before a trip to face West Virginia on Thursday night. "We just really struggled getting anything going. We couldn't get any consistency in the passing game. We couldn't get any consistency in the running game. It's really frustrating. This is a down locker room right now."
For a time, it looked like USF (3-2) could win without its offense, after sophomore Lindsey Lamar took a third-quarter kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown and a 9-6 lead after the extra point was blocked.
Twice, the defense held for a three-and-out series after getting the lead, but Syracuse's long march was the only one it needed for a huge win -- the Orange (4-1) has exactly one Big East win in each of the last four seasons, going 4-31 in the conference since USF joined it in 2005.
"You hate letting anyone drive on you, whatever the drive is. But the ones when they drive the length of the field are the ones that hurt you," said defensive end Craig Marshall, who had three sacks. "For them to be able to do that, it's just demoralizing to a defense."
Quarterback B.J. Daniels ended two drives with interceptions inside the Syracuse 15, hit just 9 of 23 passes and was held to a career-low minus-1 rushing yards, unable to answer the Orange barrage of blitzes. Twice, Daniels went deep incomplete, failing to notice an open receiver running open elsewhere downfield.
"It's not like I could sit back there all day and just pick them apart, to just look everywhere," said Daniels, who was sacked four times. "There are some times that guys will be open that won't be in your reads. Sometimes you're in it, sometimes you miss them."
Six times, the Bulls were inside the Syracuse 40-yard line -- three times on drives that started at the Syracuse 42 or better -- and the only points those drives produced were on a 31-yard field goal by Maikon Bonani, who missed in his other attempt.
"Offensively, you can't score three points in a conference game and expect to win, especially with some of the positive field position created by the defense and special teams today," Holtz said.
USF's last chance ended at its 40, when after two short runs, Daniels missed on two passes, allowing Syracuse to run out the final 90 seconds. The Bulls now have two of their toughest games -- at West Virginia and at defending Big East champion Cincinnati -- in the next 13 days, a short turnaround that could amplify Saturday's problems.
"This will be a film that's going to be sick to watch," Holtz said. "We had so many opportunities. We just couldn't capitalize on them. ... I'm not going to jump up and down and throw things and rant and rave and yell and scream. At some point, if we want to be a good football team, we have to learn to be productive and take advantage of the situations we have."