TAMPA ó If ever 17th-ranked USF needed a dazzling effort in all three phases, it was Saturday. With the initial College Football Playoff rankings three days from release, style points and across-the-board dominance mattered.
But on a dreary, drizzling afternoon against Houston, the Bulls couldnít flourish.
Or even finish.
Sophomore backup quarterback DíEriq Kingís 20-yard scoring run with 11 seconds remaining clinched Houstonís 28-24 upset of the Bulls (7-1, 4-1 American Athletic Conference) before an announced Raymond James Stadium crowd of 32,316.
Scoreless at halftime, the Cougars (5-3, 3-2) scored three touchdowns in the final 18 minutes. King set up his winning run five plays earlier with a 30-yard pass on fourth and 24 to 6-foot-2 sophomore Courtney Lark, who appeared to snag the pass over at least two Bulls defenders.
"Just go up and knock it down," Bulls coach Charlie Strong said.
"In that second half, we lost our edge," middle linebacker Auggie Sanchez added.
They lost more than that. The Bullsí 12-game win streak ó longest in Division I-A ó is over. So is their national-record string of games with at least 30 points (ending at 24). UCF now owns the nationís longest 30-point streak, at seven contests.
Still in sight is the AACís East Division title and a New Yearís Six bowl game, though one more loss vanquishes those aspirations.
"I told íem if this is the group of guys I know, then weíll be back," Sanchez said, referring to his postgame address to his peers.
"And I told íem our goal at the beginning of the season wasnít to go undefeated, it was to win the conference championship. And thatís still in place right now. We control our own destiny in that situation."
But a few things are in need of repair.
The Bullsí power-based scheme, showing little variety beyond the halfback dive, managed a season-low 137 yards against the Cougars, who mostly swarmed the line of scrimmage and held quarterback Quinton Flowers to 7 rushing yards.
In the first quarter, senior Darius Tice was stuffed on fourth and 1 from the Cougars 11. On their final scoring drive, ending with Emilio Nadelmanís 30-yard field goal with 1:46 to play, the Bulls had first and 15 at Houstonís 24 but opted for three consecutive run plays that netted 11 yards.
"They loaded the box," Strong said. "So Ö whatever they give you, youíve got to take."
Defensively, USF suffered its second late meltdown in as many games.
Houstonís stunning rally, behind a sophomore who hadnít played extensively behind center since high school, came seven days after the Bulls let Tulane score three touchdowns in the final 17 minutes of a 34-28 squeaker.
"We couldíve did just a little bit more," said senior defensive tackle Deadrin Senat, who sacked King one play before his fourth-down heave to Lark. "I myself couldíve done just a little bit more, and I know everybody on this defense is feeling the same way."
King, used only in wildcat-type situations prior to Saturday, totaled 220 yards and accounted for three touchdowns but struggled initially after replacing starter Kyle Postma.
The Bulls shut out the Cougars and held them to 82 total yards in the first half but watched them finish with 255 rushing yards. King ran for 83, while third-string tailback Mulbah Car, a burly 210-pound sophomore, gained 137 on 18 carries.
Kingís 3-yard scoring run with 6:20 to go ó capping a 10-play drive ó tied the score at 21. USF responded with a 10-play drive of its own, ending with Nadelmanís field goal. But Cougars senior Brandon McDowell returned the ensuing kick 50 yards.
"I thought I had two guys that couldíve gone in there and just knifed it and made a play," Strong said. "They stayed outside and (McDowell) ended up seaming us."
But even after that play, there was a drive that got to fourth and 24.
"One playís all we needed," Strong said. "Just one."
Alas, they couldnít finish.
At least theyíre not finished. Not yet, anyway.
"Itís okay," said Flowers, whose 332 total yards pushed him past 10,000 for his career. "At the end of the day, everything is still in front of us."
Contact Joey Knight at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.