Thud-day: Rutgers hands USF 23-13 loss
TAMPA -- This was not about a Thursday night, or a quick turnaround on a short week.
Where USF coach Skip Holtz squarely put the blame in the Bulls' 23-13 loss to Rutgers in their Big East opener was the huge role that turnovers played.
"The thing as a coach that we have got to do if we want to have any chance at all, we cannot turn the ball over," Holtz said, pounding the podium three times with his right hand in frustration. "It's something we have harped, we've talked about. We have too many guys that have played too hard to take care of the ball the way we're taking care of it. ... You're not going to win a lot of football games."
Five days after a wild comeback win at Nevada, there were no fourth-quarter heroics to be found, just another embarrassing Thursday night for an ESPN audience -- the Bulls are now 0-9 all-time on that national stage.
"I don't believe there's a curse. I don't believe there's a cloud," Holtz said after USF lost to Rutgers for the sixth time in their last seven meetings, dropping to 1-7 in Big East home games in his three seasons. "I don't believe in that. I believe the curse was we turned the ball over five times. That's where they have our number. We control that. We control how many time we turn the ball. We had three interceptions and a fumble and the fourth-and-1."
The Bulls (2-1, 0-1 in Big East) rallied to tie the game at 13-13 with nine minutes left, and had the ball with a chance to lead, but quarterback B.J. Daniels threw three straight incompletions, with no conventional running game to build a sustained drive around. USF's running backs had a combined 14 carries for 27 yards, a stark contrast to Rutgers' Jawan Jamison, who rushed 40 times for 151 yards.
On the field most of the second half -- Rutgers (3-0, 1-0) had the ball for 21:25, compared to USF's 8:35 -- USF's defense finally gave up big plays, like a 46-yard pass from Gary Nova to Tim Wright to set up the go-ahead field goal with 2:48 left. Again, the offense sputtered with three straight incompletions, the last on a fourth-and-4 from USF's 41-yard line; Rutgers put the game away with a 41-yard scoring run from Jamison.
"It was a lack of execution," linebacker Sam Barrington said after Rutgers converted four third downs where it needed 10 yards or more. "It's very tough ... perseverance is the key word. They convert a third down on one drive, you've got to get them the next."
Turnovers doomed the Bulls -- twice in the second quarter, staked to a 6-0 lead, the Bulls drove inside the Rutgers 30 thanks to pass plays of 44 and 58 yards, but still came out without points, first with Daniels coming up short on a fourth-and-1, then having Daniels throw the first of three interceptions from the 25-yard line.
For the second game in a row, Terrence Mitchell lost a fumble on a punt return, setting up a tying field goal, and the most costly turnover came inside the Rutgers 5-yard line, when Daniels' pass to tight end Evan Landi was bobbled into the hands of Rutgers' Jamal Merrell. The Scarlet Knights took a 13-6 lead on the ensuing drive.
For all the frustration of the first three quarters, USF got a huge break -- Daniels' third-down pass went off the fingertips of 6-foot-2 Rutgers corner Marcus Cooper into the hands of 5-5 receiver Derrick Hopkins at the 1-yard line. On the next play, Demetris Murray scored a 1-yard touchdown to tie the game at 13-13.
But USF's offense fizzled from there, totaling 18 yards on its final eight plays, unable to recreate last week's amazing finish.
"It was tough. Last week we had an opportunity to move the ball and we did. This time, the ball really didn't bounce our way," said Daniels, who passed for 242 yards and rushed for 68, accounting for 92 percent of USF's offensive yards.
USF had a quick turnaround, playing Thursday after a long road trip to Nevada and a return flight that got them back to Tampa at about 3 a.m. Sunday. Rutgers, too, had a short week, but was coming off an easy 26-0 home win against I-AA Howard.
The Bulls now have two nonconference games, traveling to Ball State next weekend then returning home for a potential sellout against Florida State on Sept. 29. USF resumes conference play Oct. 6 at Temple, with a bye week before a key conference game at Louisville on Oct. 20.