Three and out: Bulls fall 38-33 to Cincy
I'll be back with more, but here's a first look at Sunday's game story ...
TAMPA – The end was close enough to be heartbreaking, but for USF, the beginning was so record-setting bad you couldn’t believe the game could come down to a single play, an official’s no-call in the end zone.
USF dug itself another huge hole and nearly climbed out, but the Bulls saw their homecoming spoiled by a third straight loss to an unranked team, a 38-33 loss to Cincinnati that gives the Bulls little else but a hollow bowl trip to play for.
National rankings? Gone. Contention for a Big East crown? Not this year. The No. 20 Bulls lost all of that, much the same way they coughed up a school-record eight turnovers. In three weeks, in three close losses, they have gone from No. 2 in the nation to sharing the conference cellar with Syracuse.
“Too many mistakes,” coach Jim Leavitt said. “There’s no excuse really, at all. We didn’t play good enough to win. … You just can’t turn the ball over that many times and expect to win. It’s amazing that we were in it with the turnovers that we had.”
And yet amazingly, the Bulls (6-3, 1-3) were in it. Down 18 in the second half, down 11 with three minutes to play, the Bulls got a late touchdown, then got to the Cincy 18-yard line and had two catchable passes in the end zone in the final eight seconds.
Had Matt Grothe’s final pass found Jessie Hester in the end zone, it would have been an amazing rally, but the pass fell incomplete, with no flag beside it despite apparent contact on Hester from Cincinnati’s Anthony Williams.
“I will be so broken up, my heart would break if I look at this play and there’s interference,” Leavitt said. “I’m sure they made the right call. … I don’t know. Goodness gracious, that was close.”
Grothe finished with a school-record 382 yards, but he had five of USF’s eight turnovers, tying another record with four interceptions. For the second game in a row, one was returned for a touchdown. Still, he led the Bulls with 75 rushing yards, accounting for 95 percent of the offense's 481 yards.
"I am as proud of Matt as you can be," Leavitt said. "The guy's a battler, and I'm going to battle with him forever. I love the guy."
It was a promising start for the Bulls, with Trae Williams returning an interception 73 yards for a touchdown, and Mike Jenkins taking a kickoff 100 yards for a 14-7 lead.
"I thought at the time it would set the tone for the game, but obviously, it didn't," Williams said.
But Cincinnati (7-2, 2-2) fired off 24 points in a seven-minute span, recovering a blocked punt in the end zone, returning a Grothe interception 79 yards for another score, then scoring on one of three touchdown passes from quarterback Ben Mauk.
Just as USF trailed Connecticut 16-0 at halftime last week, the Bulls were down 38-20 to the Bearcats. The defense shut Cincinnati out in the second half, but again, a rally started too late and came up agonizingly short.
Consider the mistakes in the fourth quarter alone: Marcus Edwards muffed a punt on his 16-yard line, and Grothe’s fourth interception set up Cincinnati on the USF 31; another pick was called back on replay. The Bearcats missed one field goal, then had another blocked by George Selvie.
Grothe’s touchdown to Jessie Hester with 2:04 remaining cut the lead to 38-33 – a two-point conversion was intercepted. USF failed to recover an onsides kick, and still got a chance with 29 seconds left.
Grothe completed passes of 20 and 24 yards, putting USF on the 18-yard line with 0:08 left. Carlton Mitchell nearly came down with one touchdown pass, and then a final shot to Hester fell incomplete, with no pass-interference flag to give USF one more chance.
A third loss, with two of three remaining games on the road, means USF's bowl future is likely in Charlotte, N.C., or in Birmingham, Ala., where they've gone after each of the last two seasons. This time, the Bulls will go there knowing they could have done something more with their season.
“It’s real difficult for us right now,” Jenkins said. “Right now, we’re just playing for pride.”