MUNCIE, Ind. — It had the makings of another wild road comeback like Nevada two weeks earlier, with USF's offense again rallying and doing just enough late to pardon its defense of being unable to stop the opposing team.
Quarterback B.J. Daniels led USF 99 yards for a go-ahead touchdown with 4:12 left at Ball State, erasing a 12-point second-half deficit, but that put the game in the hands of the Bulls defense, which saw the Cardinals drive 75 yards for the winning touchdown with 1:02 left, handing the Bulls a humbling 31-27 loss before a crowd of 16,397.
"It's unfortunate. This team worked hard and competed," said coach Skip Holtz, whose program hadn't lost to a non-BCS opponent in 26 chances since joining the Big East in 2005. "(But) a lot of people compete hard. We've got to eliminate the mistakes. Especially the penalties, which right now are the biggest Achilles' heel we have as a football team."
USF's defense did nearly nothing Saturday — not a single sack, not even one tackle for loss in 71 plays. Ball State scored on five possessions, and there were no takeaways for a defense still seeking its first interception of the season. The unit has established an identity of being unable to even stop teams in third-and-long situations.
"More important than anything else, it seemed like we had a very difficult time getting off the field defensively," said Holtz, whose team has dropped nine of its past 12 games. "That, truly, I think was probably one of the differences in this football game."
Trailing 10-9 at halftime, USF (2-2) let Ball State (3-1) convert third-and-14 and third-and-16 plays on the opening drive of the third quarter for a 17-9 lead. Ball State converted a fourth down on its final drive, which ended with a toe-tap touchdown in the corner of the end zone by receiver Willie Snead on — you guessed it — third and 10.
"We're just killing ourselves," defensive tackle Luke Sager said. "It's not a lack of talent. It's penalties, it's one of us messing up. We have them in third and long and we don't have the discipline to get off the field."
USF came out with a ball-control game plan, running on its first 13 plays, trying to keep Ball State's offense (and its own defense) off the field. The offense piled up 518 yards, with backs Demetris Murray and Lindsey Lamar combining for 249 yards of total offense on 29 carries and seven receptions. Lamar had two touchdown grabs, including the go-ahead 29-yard touchdown to cap the 99-yard drive.
"It was encouraging to watch the offense have the success it was … it was just as discouraging to watch our defense not be able to get off the field, especially in the second half," Holtz said.
Daniels was superb, eluding sacks to make key throws, finishing with 312 passing yards and 75 rushing yards, his only interceptions coming on the final plays of each half. Given the ball on his 13 with 1:01 to go and one time out, Daniels ran for 12 yards, then hit passes of 25 and 22 yards to reach the Ball State 27.
His final pass with 11 seconds left was a miscommunication, with Terrence Mitchell running a deep route as Daniels threw a sideline pattern that was intercepted by Plant graduate Eric Patterson to end the game.
"Me and him just weren't on the same page," said Daniels, who has six interceptions in four games after totaling seven in all of last season.
USF comes home for a far more difficult challenge next week as No. 4 Florida State comes to Tampa for what should be a sellout game at Raymond James Stadium. The Bulls said they have to put a second straight close loss behind them or the Seminoles could hand them something much worse.
"This one's over. You can't do anything about this one," Murray said. "We've got to play better next week, or we'll get run out of he stadium. It's that simple. We have to get everything right."