Frustration showing as Bulls fall to Louisville, 34-24
TAMPA -- In his previous four losses, all by less than a touchdown, USF coach Skip Holtz made a point in his postgame comments to say how proud he was of his players, how a single play here or there separated victory from defeat.
There was no such consolation Friday afternoon, as Holtz's Bulls, staked to a 17-3 lead just before halftime, pulled together an ineffective offense, a consistently disappointing third-down defense and disastrous special-teams play, helping Louisville pull away to a 34-24 win.
"Defensively, we were poor. You shouldn't leave that many guys uncontested, wide-open," Holtz said. "We did not play very smart today as a football team. ... Take 17 points off the board and ask how big special teams were in this game. I think it was absolutely huge. ... We certainly didn't play one of our better games of the season this year."
If the season has slipped away from Holtz and USF (5-6, 1-5 in Big East), so too has its fanbase -- just six days earlier, the Bulls announced 57,572 fans for a home game against Miami, but saddled with an 11 a.m. Friday morning kickoff, the Bulls announced just 33,416 -- USF's smallest crowd in more than five years. The actual attendance was just 19,115, less than half of the 46,245 actually there for Miami on Saturday.
The Bulls played without starting quarterback B.J. Daniels, who hurt his throwing shoulder in the Miami loss, and backup Bobby Eveld, making just his second start, struggled to move the ball in the second half for the second week in a row. And after handling loss after loss as a unified team, there were the first signs of frustration within the locker room, as running back Darrell Scott said complaints were made among players about costly turnovers.
"We've got to come together first. We can't split apart," Scott said. "Tomorrow we have off, and the next day we've got to get together, work and sort this out ... We were kind of bickering a little amongst each other. We've got to stay together. We will. You know how you point fingers for turnovers and stuff. We're not used to all these Ls. A lot of these guys aren't used to this losing streak we're having, all these losses. It's new for all of us. We just need to know how to handle this."
Whether by special-teams mistakes or offensive turnovers, USF's defense faced many short fields -- Louisville had four scoring drives shorter than 40 yards. The offense struggled enough in the second half that the defense was on the field more than twice as often, a burden that proved too heavy to carry.
"We kind of like it for the game to be on our backs, but it kind of wears down on us a little bit," defensive tackle Keith McCaskill said. "We have to keep a positive mind and just keep going out there and fighting."
Bold playcalling helped the Bulls to a 17-3 lead, with a 35-yard touchdown pass on a fourth-and-3 gamble, then another touchdown scored after a fourth-and-1 converted from a Wildcat formation, with receiver Victor Marc (who had muffed a punt return early) taking the direct snap.
Momentum shifted -- left a forwarding address, even -- to Louisville in the final minute of the half, when USF attempted a short squib kickoff that Senorise Perry returned 54 yards to the USF 25 with 35 seconds left. Two plays later, Louisville freshman quarterback Teddy Bridgewater found freshman DeVante Parker for a 17-yard touchdown, cutting the Bulls' lead in half with 22 seconds on the clock.
USF got the ball to open the second half, but went three-and-out on its first two drives, with Louisville striking for a field goal, then a go-ahead touchdown to 6-foot-8 tight end Josh Chichester for a 20-17 lead with 2:40 left in the third. USF bounced back, however, as Lindsey Lamar returned the kickoff 62 yards -- a season long for the Bulls -- and USF executed a trick play, with running back Demetris Murray throwing to a wide-open receiver Deonte Welch for a 37-yard touchdown and a 24-20 lead.
The offense stalled again, punter Justin Brockhaus-Kann had a 17-yard punt, and Louisville drove down the field. Facing a fourth-and-1 at the USF 13, the Cardinals went for it and converted, then got another Bridgewater touchdown pass for a 27-24 lead.
With 5:43 left, USF got the ball on its 6, but its last hopes ended when freshman Andre Davis fumbled at the USF 17; two plays later, Louisville had scored another touchdown and the game was out of reach.
Which unit deserved the blame most? Arguably special teams, which saw a muffed punt lead to Louisville's first points, a 52-yard kickoff return set up the Cards' first touchdown, punts of 26 and 17 yards, followed by a 72-yard punt negated by a personal-foul penalty on long-snapper Mike Walsh.
The Bulls -- who now have their most losses in six years -- are technically alive for bowl eligibility but would need to beat West Virginia on Thursday night, then hope there's a spot for a 6-6 team that has lost six of its last eight games. Louisville (7-5, 5-2) clinched a share of first place with the win, but still needs help to lock up the league's BCS bowl berth.