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For USF Bulls defense, trouble is only a fourth quarter away

Think of it as a mushroom cloud rising in the distance. It is a horrible sight, yet you cannot look away. You are aware of the fallout to come, but the sheer power is mesmerizing.

Think of it as a volcano erupting in front of you. The lava spews into the air with massive force, then turns into a boiling river of fire. And the sight is frightening and yet fascinating.

Think of it as a deep, dark crater left by the impact of a fallen meteor. It is deeper than you would have ever thought, and wider than you could ever describe. And even as you peer over the edge, you are hypnotized by the scorched earth below.

This, then, is what the USF football season has started to resemble.

The wreckage is endless, and yet, you cannot help but stare at a season that has driven into the ditch.

By now, the breakdown of the Bulls' season is historic. Has there ever been a team that has collapsed so often in the final minutes of football games? Have so many late-game leads ever turned into so many letdowns?

It defies explanation. The Bulls do not finish. They do not close. They do not shut out the lights. When the game is on the line, they rarely slow anyone down.

Also, they do not win.

In the noisiest of USF seasons, there has been a lot to grumble out. Somewhere, fans are debating the future of coach Skip Holtz. They are wondering why the Bulls are the only team in the NCAA without an interception. They are questioning anything about a team that was rated 95th this week by the Colley Matrix, one of the ranking systems that comprises the BCS standings. They are discussing why USF has only won one of its past 13 Big East games.

Then there is this: Why are the Bulls so awful in the final minutes of the fourth quarter?

For two seasons, it has been like this, a strange, weekly case of deja boo. Every week, it seems, the Bulls are a plucky little team for 58 minutes or so, and every week, they melt away at the sound of the two-minute warning. It is like watching a demolition derby; after a while, the only thing you remember is the twisted wreckage at the end.

These days, fans can see it coming. Admit it: When USF kicked a field goal to go ahead 36-31 against Syracuse last week, how many people automatically did the math and decided the Bulls would end up losing 37-36? These days, the game clock always looks like a time bomb.

This is who they are, and sadly, this is what they do. They self-destruct. They auto-eject. They take your heart and put it into the fruit juicer.

Then they do it again.

And again.

And a lot more agains.

In some ways, this losing streak is as fascinating as it is frustrating. How can the Bulls be good enough to take fourth quarter leads so often and bad enough to always let them get away? Put it this way: If USF had won this many comebacks, it would be the talk of the nation. Instead, it has enabled this many comebacks. Not quite the same thing, is it?

How do you explain this? Is it a lack of talent? Granted, USF could use more talent, but it isn't as if USF changed players after it built a 20-point lead against Syracuse. Is it bad coaching? Bad planning? Bad luck? Depends on who you ask. Is it a lack of confidence? Certainly, that's part of it. Coaches and players can feel trouble coming, too.

Here's what I believe: I think it's a matter of improper construction. These Bulls aren't built for protecting leads. After all, the worse thing the Bulls do is protect the pass, and the second thing is rush the quarterback. Both of those tend to get exposed late in games when teams are forced to throw.

Ah, but it isn't just the pass defense that gets USF beat. Over the last two years, the Bulls have managed to lose a game when they had 369 yards rushing, and one when they had 409 yards passing, and one when they had seven sacks. They have blown two-score leads in the fourth quarter. They have given up winning drives of 70 or more yards to lose four times in the final minutes.

They have botched field goals that would have won. They have wasted their own comebacks. They have lost when the opposition had a field to go with no timeouts left. In all, they have lost nine games under Holtz in games that they had a fourth-quarter lead and four more in which they were tied.

Time and again, they have squandered leads and wasted opportunities and let games slip through their fingers. It has been as painful as a decent book with a terrible final chapter.

And yet, won't you watch again this week? You know, just to see the glow in the distance?

Listen to Gary Shelton weekdays from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. on 98.7-FM the Fan.

USF's late letdowns

USF lost in the final minutes, if not final seconds, often under Skip Holtz even before this season:

Dec. 4, 2010UConnTied 16-16Lost 19-16 on FG with 17 seconds left.
Oct. 22, 2011CincinnatiLed 34-30Lost 37-34 on TD with 12 seconds left.
Nov. 5, 2011RutgersLed 17-10Rutgers tied score with 1:08 left, won 20-17 in OT.
Nov. 19, 2011MiamiTied 3-3Lost 6-3 on FG as time expired.
Dec. 1, 2011West VirginiaTied 27-27 Lost 30-27 on FG as time expired

(Bulls led 27-20 before WVU TD with 5:09 left.)

Greg Auman, Times staff writer

For USF Bulls defense, trouble is only a fourth quarter away 10/30/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 30, 2012 11:17pm]
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