Fitting finish: West Virginia stuns Bulls, 30-27
TAMPA -- Just when it looked like USF would be the one making the fourth-quarter comeback, West Virginia deal the Bulls one final, painful come-from-behind loss, rallying for a 30-27 win to end the Bulls' season Thursday night.
The Bulls -- who had rallied from 10 points down to a 27-20 lead in the fourth quarter -- were in position for a go-ahead field goal, but B.J. Daniels lost a fumble at the West Virginia 28, and the Mountaineers, already aided by a 15-yard personal-foul penalty on the tying drive, did what so many teams have done this season: They took a victory away from the Bulls.
On fourth-and-10 from the USF 42 with 13 seconds to play, West Virginia's Geno Smith completed a 26-yard pass to Stedman Bailey, setting up Tyler Bitancourt's 28-yard game-winning field goal as time expired. West Virginia (9-3, 5-2 in Big East) earned a share of the Big East crown, much like Connecticut did a year ago through the same uprights as time expired in last year's final game.
"There's not a lot of words you can say in that locker room to take the pain and the hurt away," coach Skip Holtz said. "You can't ask this team to play with any more passion, any more heart, any more togetherness. I can't ask them to put any more of their soul into this as they has. I've had teams in my past with better records. I don't know that I've had a team that's taught me more about adversity and perseverance, having a positive attitude and coming back week after week after week when we've been through so many losses that take all the air out of your lungs."
The Bulls (5-7, 1-6) lost two games this season on kicks as time expired, another on a touchdown with 12 seconds left and another in overtime. They led in the fourth quarter of four of those losses, three by a touchdown or more. Their streak of six straight bowl appearances ends at six years, but it looked good with nine minutes left when the Bulls took the lead before a home crowd announced at 41,743.
Down 10 points late in the third quarter, USF rallied for 17 straight points, the last seven coming on an interception returned by cornerback JaQuez Jenkins. But West Virginia had a comeback in them as well, driving for the tying touchdown with 5:09 left. The Bulls had a chance to win in regulation, driving inside the West Virginia 30, but quarterback B.J. Daniels lost a fumble at the 28-yard line with 3:02 left. From there, West Virginia closed out the game with a drive that set up the winning kick.
USF's defense had controlled the game most of the way, but special-teams breakdowns and red-zone inefficiencies kept the Bulls from having the same advantage on the scoreboard. Daniels overcame a slow start to engineer a 76-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter, and USF's defense stifled the Big East's top offense, coming up with big play after big play.
Down 27-20 with 10 minutes left, West Virginia answered with a 77-yard touchdown drive, helped by a 15-yard penalty on defensive end Ryne Giddins on what would have set up a fourth down for the Mountaineers. The drive ended with a 5-yard touchdown run by Dustin Garrison, but USF answered right away. Lindsey Lamar's kickoff return set up USF at the West Virginia 41, but the drive ended with Daniels' fumble.
USF's offense had tied the game early in the fourth on a 76-yard touchdown drive that ended with B.J. Daniels' 1-yard keeper. With top rusher Darrell Scott sidelined, the Bulls got tough yards from Demetris Murray and big third-down conversions by Daniels, who found tight end Evan Landi and receiver Andre Davis for key first downs.
Twice before in the second half, USF had settled for field goals after drives stalled deep in West Virginia territory. After being stopped from the 3 and 1, Daniels got that elusive last yard on a keeper to tie the game with 10:01 left.
Special teams had continued to threaten the Bulls, with Tavon Austin's 90-yard touchdown on a kickoff return sparking the Mountaineers after USF had pulled within 13-10 in the third quarter. The special-teams woes started much earlier, as West Virginia blocked a USF punt at the Bulls' 5-yard line. The defense held firm there, however, and the Mountaineers had to settle for a field goal and 3-0 lead.
Daniels' early struggles peaked with a high throw that was intercepted by WVU's Pat Miller and returned 52 yards for a touchdown and a 10-0 lead.
The Bulls' offense woke up, however, with an 80-yard drive that ended with Daniels' 20-yard touchdown pass to receiver Sterling Griffin, who returned after missing four games with a fractured ankle.
The defense held West Virginia's high-scoring offense in check in the first half, its only true points allowed coming on a field goal in the final minute.
West Virginia looked to pounce on the opening drive of the second half, starting on the 40 after a kickoff out of bounds. The Mountaineers had receiver Tavon Austin inside the USF 10 when linebacker Sam Barrington stripped the ball loose, and linebacker Mike Lanaris recovered the loose ball at the 2-yard line.
USF then marched 83 yards down the field, with Scott getting a 32-yard run to midfield and Daniels following with a 16-yard scramble. The drive ended at the West Virginia 15, with USF settling for a 32-yard Bonani field goal.
The defense stepped up again, with cornerback Quenton Washington intercepting a Geno Smith pass at the WVU 32-yard line. The Bulls had first and goal from the 5, but couldn't find the end zone on the next six plays, including two shots from the 2-yard line. Again, they came away with three points on another Bonani field goal, trailing 20-13.
The Bulls came in needing a win to be bowl-eligible for a seventh year in a row, while West Virginia came in with a shot at a share of the conference title, and even a BCS bowl berth with help this weekend. After a 4-0 start and a rise in the national rankings, the Bulls opened Big East play with four consecutive losses, losing double-digit fourth-quarter leads in losses to Cincinnati and Rutgers.