TAMPA — For all of 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, allowing a backup quarterback to shine in a 34-17 loss before 63,976 at Raymond James Stadium.
"I thought we'd play great in the second half and win the ball game. Obviously, I was wrong," USF 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, 1-1 Big East) 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 the Thursday woes. "Cincinnati's a good team whether we play them on Thursday night, Friday night or Saturday night."
Cincinnati (6-0, 2-0) became the first team to beat the Bulls four years in a row and now is the team to beat as the defending Big East champion.
Even after the Bulls knocked star quarterback Tony Pike out of the game in the third quarter, backup Zach Collaros surprised them with a 75-yard scramble for a touchdown.
"It was a backbreaker. It was a great play by the quarterback," said USF quarterback B.J. Daniels, who accounted for 282 yards of offense and both touchdowns in his first home start.
Cincinnati rushed for just 5 yards in the first half, but Collaros rushed for 132 by himself in the second half on just 10 carries and threw a 43-yard pass that preceded his touchdown run that put the Bearcats up by 14.
"We did a poor job of adjusting to the other quarterback," 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. Daniels threw an interception that Aaron Webster returned 83 yards to set up the Bearcats' first touchdown for a 10-7 lead. The Bulls also went 4-for-16 on third downs.
Down 24-10 in the third, USF's defense provided a spark as Jason Pierre-Paul got a hand on a Collaros pass that was intercepted by Nate Allen and returned to the Cincinnati 24. Two plays later, Daniels' touchdown cut the Bearcats' lead to 24-17.
But USF's defense couldn't step up, letting Collaros throw the 43-yard pass to Ben Guidugli.
Daniels had Carlton Mitchell wide open for a potential 87-yard touchdown, but Mitchell let the ball pop out of his hands. A drop by receiver Patrick Richardson on fourth down ended an early USF drive at the Cincinnati 27.
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 Armon Binns, and USF's offense stalled, getting no points from three drives to the Cincinnati 40 or deeper. A 50-yard field goal by walk-on Eric Schwartz on the last play of the first half cut USF's deficit to 17-10.
The Bulls have a tough stretch ahead with a trip to Pittsburgh (5-1, 2-1) on Oct. 24 then a home game against West Virginia (4-1, 1-0) on Oct. 30.