TAMPA — If Skip Holtz had a baseball team, you would say he has bullpen issues.
Two games in a row, USF has had a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter — and was ahead in the final 90 seconds, the football equivalent of a lead with two outs in the bottom of the ninth — and has managed to lose, something the Bulls had never done in their 15-year history before these two losses.
For whatever reason, Holtz's Bulls have consistently hit a wall in the fourth. For both of his seasons in Tampa, it's the only quarter in which USF doesn't outscore its opponents. In the previous 13 seasons, the worst the Bulls had ever managed in the fourth quarter was being outscored by seven points in 1999 — since then, every Bulls team has won the fourth or come within a single point of doing so.
But last year? USF was outscored 89-60 in the fourth, including a 30-10 margin in their losses. This season, they're worse, getting outscored 67-42, including 46-14 in the final 10 minutes in their five games against BCS-level competition. Remember the 23-20 Notre Dame win to open the season? That was a 23-7 Bulls lead with eight minutes remaining.
USF's late struggles were a problem last year, too — Friday's opponent, Syracuse, beat the Bulls 13-9 last year on a touchdown with 7:15 left. Cincinnati and Clemson had two touchdowns each in the fourth, though USF survived those, as the Bulls did in overtime against Louisville after giving up a tying touchdown with 1:21 to play.
USF fans remember the Bulls' rally in the final two minutes against Miami, but that was only necessary because Miami scored the first 10 points of the fourth quarter to erase a previous Bulls lead.
The good news for USF? Syracuse may be worse at fourth quarters. Last week against Connecticut, the Huskies scored 14 in the fourth to rally for a 28-21 win. Against Louisville, the Cardinals scored the first 13 points of the quarter to pull away in a 27-10 win. And Rutgers, trailing the Orange 13-3 in the fourth, scored 10 points to tie the game, then won in overtime.
MORE HONORS: Senior C Chaz Hine, already a National Football Foundation Scholar-Athlete, has racked up another academic honor as a finalist for the Wuerffel Trophy, which recognizes community service and academic success in addition to strong play on the field.
Hine, who stepped up in leading a players-only meeting this week, is showing his leadership in the locker room as well.
THIS AND THAT: Both basketball teams will make commitments official today as the fall signing period opens, and it's a promising sign for the impact USF's new Muma Center practice facility can have on recruiting. Men's coach Stan Heath and women's counterpart Jose Fernandez both have a single scholarship left for the spring, which allows them to focus more attention on 2013 recruits. … The men's soccer team took a tough 1-0 loss in the Big East quarterfinals, but coach George Kiefer's team should have an opening-round bye in the NCAA Tournament, plus at least one home game after a two-week layoff. … With two games left in the regular season, the volleyball team is 6-6 in the Big East, stuck in a four-way tie for sixth with only the top eight teams making the league tournament. The Bulls are on the road, but a split might be enough at West Virginia (5-8) and Pittsburgh (6-7).