TAMPA — The walk off the field looked sadly familiar. It was the aimless stroll of a team going nowhere.
It is not that South Florida has nothing left to play for in 2010. The Bulls still have a game against Miami, and they still have a bowl game somewhere in the peripheral days of December.
It's just that after all of this time, all of this change, all of this hope, the Bulls have once again managed to get stuck somewhere in the grand middle. Not quite up, not quite down, and not quite relevant heading to Thanksgiving.
For better or worse, it is a place they know well. They have spent six seasons in the Big East conference, and this will be the fifth time they have finished either one game above or one game below .500. Never one of the top two teams. Never one of the bottom two teams. Never part of the conversation when the discussion really matters.
In the closing days of one season, it was UConn and West Virginia that did them in. In another, it was Louisville. This time it was Pittsburgh, and the wrong side of a 17-10 score.
"Speaking for the seniors, this one was very difficult," fullback Richard Kelly said. "We were so close. We thought we had it. And we just came up a little short."
You could argue that USF did well to keep the suspense going this long. The Bulls had an abrupt coaching change, an abbreviated recruiting season and a fistful of players skipping toward the NFL.
So, yes, to say they had a chance to play for a share of the Big East lead in the final weeks of November was probably a brag-worthy accomplishment. On the other hand, they could have been in the conversation for a BCS bowl game this morning.
All it would have taken was one or two moments in a game that was tied heading into the fourth quarter. All that was needed was someone to step up and have the game of his life on either side of the ball.
Instead, the defense disappeared on a critical third-down play in the fourth quarter. And the offense looked as if it had no concept of how a two-minute drill is run.
"We felt like we were getting better each week, and the kids were believing in themselves," defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said. "All of the ingredients were there to make a run, and that's why this is disappointing."
A month ago, it appeared as if the Bulls were stumbling toward obscurity. Their only victories were against nonconference cupcakes, and they were 0-2 in the Big East for the first time.
Maybe they got lucky after that. Maybe it was a fluke that they won three consecutive conference games by a total of 12 points, and they found themselves playing for a share of first place in late November.
Whether it was good fortune or good coaching that brought them here, the opportunity hung in the air for much of the afternoon on Saturday. And every time it seemed to be slipping away, Pitt gave USF another chance to complete the deal.
The most dependable play in the South Florida arsenal was a Pitt penalty. Five pass-interference calls, one roughing-the-passer and one running-into-the-kicker penalty gave the Bulls seven first downs. By comparison, they got only three first downs on completed passes.
And still, it was not enough.
"We knew this was going to be a journey. We knew it was going to be a challenge," USF coach Skip Holtz said. "As I told the seniors, I was proud for them to get themselves in this situation. I was proud for the way they competed. How hard they played.
"Do I feel like something has been lost? Yeah, an opportunity this year. But I'm certainly not discouraged. I'm not ready to throw in the towel or look at it as if we've taken 10 steps backward.
"Sure, right now, this stinks. I told the players that losing stinks. And I hurt for them because I know how hard they played. I feel like as a coach, I've let them down."
So what, I wondered, would Holtz think about when his head hit the pillow Saturday night?
"This close," he said. "We were this close."
And how will he deal with that?
With a shake of the head and a grin that said he was joking, Holtz answered as he walked back toward the locker room.
"With a lot of Ambien."