TAMPA — This might have been the cruelest collapse of all for USF football.
Staked to a 23-3 halftime lead Saturday, the Bulls saw that disappear in 10 minutes. But after rallying to lead 33-24, USF's defense did it again, giving up yet another last-minute drive to steal victory away.
Syracuse went 75 yards in the final 1:23 with no timeouts, as Ryan Nassib hit Alec Lemon for a 1-yard touchdown with three seconds left for a 37-36 Orange win at Raymond James Stadium.
"I'm rather speechless on this one," said coach Skip Holtz, whose team is the only one in the nation this season to blow a lead of 20 points or more, according to ESPN. "I wish I could stand up here and say a bunch of things to make it better. Unfortunately, I can't."
The loss is USF's sixth in a row — extending the school record — and the third in which the defense has given up a 75-yard touchdown drive in the final minutes to give up the lead. USF (2-6, 0-4 in Big East) had beaten Syracuse (4-4, 3-1) in six of seven previous meetings.
The Bulls got a school record five field goals from Maikon Bonani, the last giving them a 36-31 lead with 1:23 to play, but that gave the ball back to Syracuse. Nassib completed passes of 19, 20 and 20 yards to get the Orange to the USF 16-yard line. After two penalties, Nassib threw a pass to the 1, setting up a final play with 0:06 left. He threw to Lemon, who beat cornerback George Baker for the winning score.
"When you play pass defense the way we play pass defense, it can make for a long day," said Holtz, who saw Nassib throw for 328 yards and four second-half touchdowns. "It's just heartbreaking, not just for our players, but for all the people who continue to support this program. It's very disappointing we couldn't get it done in the final minutes of the game."
Ball State and Louisville also went 75 yards to erase USF leads in the final minutes during this losing streak, and Holtz suggested changes have to come on his defense.
"We can't stay status quo," he said. "It's not acceptable to sit there and watch a team go for 500-some-odd yards against us, score 37 points, especially in the waning moments of the game like that. … Right now, we are not very good on defense. As the head coach, I have an obligation to the people that support this program, to the players, to try to find an answer. We have four games remaining on the schedule."
Asked if those changes could involve his defensive staff, Holtz said: "I have a lot of things I have to look at right now."
Facing a defense that was allowing 35 rushing yards per game in Big East play, USF rushed for 273 yards in the first half and finished with 369, just 8 short of a school record. Lindsey Lamar rushed for 145, including an 80-yard touchdown, while B.J. Daniels rushed for 134 on 12 carries.
USF led 23-3 after a dominating first half, going directly at Syracuse's strength. USF got its first opening-drive touchdown this season and built on that — Daniels' 53-yard run set up a field goal for a 13-3 lead, then Lamar went 80 yards for a touchdown. By halftime, USF led 20-3 and seven times as many rushing yards as the Orange had allowed per Big East game.
For all that dominance, Syracuse erased a 20-point deficit in the first 10 minutes of the second half. Nassib hit receiver Jarrod West for a 31-yard score on the opening drive and Syracuse, after blocking a punt, scored on Lemon's 4-yard run. Demetris Murray fumbled on the next play, setting up Syracuse at the USF 23, and they converted on third and goal when Nassib hit receiver Marcus Sales for a touchdown and a 24-23 lead, silencing a homecoming crowd announced as 38,562.
But the Bulls fired back, with Daniels hitting Lamar for a 43-yard pass play then running 18 yards to set up a Bonani field goal for a 26-24 lead. Linebacker Reshard Cliett's sack ended Syracuse's next drive, and Daniels led the Bulls on a 64-yard drive, converting two third downs, then hitting Davis for his sixth touchdown catch of the season and a 33-24 lead.