Thursday Blues: Cincy beats USF, 34-17
TAMPA -- For all the exposure and excitement, Thursday night remains a bad, bad night for USF to play football.
Facing No. 8 Cincinnati before a national ESPN audience and their biggest home crowd in nearly two years, the No. 21 Bulls gave up big plays in the second half and couldn't force Cincinnati into enough mistakes. That allowed the Bearcats and their backup quarterback to pull away to a 34-17 win before 63,976 at Raymond James Stadium.
"I thought we'd play great in the second half and win the ballgame. Obviously I was wrong," coach Jim Leavitt said. "Cincinnati outplayed us in the second half, and that's all there is to it."
It's the fourth Thursday game the Bulls (5-1) have lost in the past three seasons, and the third year in a row the Bulls have taken their first loss on a Thursday in October after at least five wins to open the season.
"I don't know why. If anybody has the answer, let me know," Leavitt said of his team's Thursday woes. "Cincinnati's a good team, whether we play them on Thursday night, Friday night or Saturday night."
Cincinnati (6-0) became the first team to beat the Bulls four years in a row and is now is officially the team to beat as defending Big East champs.
Even after the Bulls knocked star quarterback Tony Pike out of the game in the third quarter, backup Zach Collaros surprised USF with a 75-yard scramble for a touchdown.
"It was a back-breaker. It was a great play by the quarterback," said USF quarterback B.J. Daniels, who accounted for 282 yards of total offense and both touchdowns in his first home start.
Cincinnati had rushed for just 5 yards in the first half, but Collaros rushed for 132 yards in the second half on 10 carries, and threw a 43-yard pass to set up another touchdown run he scored for a 14-point lead.
"We did a poor job of adjusting to the other quarterback, I thought. I think that was pretty obvious," Leavitt said. "It kind of caught us. We worked very hard with (Pike). It's a good job by them."
The Bulls hurt themselves with penalties -- 12 for 113 yards -- and were inconsistent on offense, with Daniels throwing a costly interception that Cincy's Aaron Webster returned 83 yards to set up the Bearcats' first touchdown and a 10-7 lead. The Bulls also went 4-for-16 on third downs.
Down 24-10 in the third, USF's defense got a spark as defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul got a hand on a Collaros pass that was intercepted by Nate Allen and returned to the Cincy 24. Two plays later, Daniels had a touchdown to cut the Bearcats' lead to 24-17.
But USF's defense couldn't step up, letting Collaros throw a 43-yard pass to tight end Ben Guidugli to the 1-yard line, setting up another Collaros touchdown.
Daniels had receiver Carlton Mitchell wide-open for a potential 87-yard touchdown, but Mitchell let the ball pop out of his hands. Another drop by Patrick Richardson on fourth down ended an early USF drive at the Cincinnati 27-yard line. Much of the large crowd had turned to empty red seats midway through the fourth quarter.
The game saw USF defensive coordinator Joe Tresey facing the team he helped to a Big East crown last season. After holding Cincinnati to 133 yards in the first half, the Bulls struggled in the second half, allowing Collaros to put the game away.
USF, which had won five straight games against ranked opponents, had the home crowd loud early, when Daniels hit receiver Jessie Hester for a 29-yard touchdown, his first catch of the season. But Pike answered with two touchdowns to receiver Armon Binns, and USF's offense stalled, getting no points from three drives to the Cincinnati 40 or deeper. Only by a 50-yard field goal by walk-on Eric Schwartz was USF able to cut the lead to 17-10 at the half.
The Bulls have a tough stretch ahead, with another ranked opponent likely next week at Pittsburgh, then a return home to face West Virginia on Oct. 30.