TAMPA — In his previous four losses, all by less than a touchdown, USF coach Skip Holtz made a point in his postgame comments to say how proud he was of his players, how a single play here or there separated victory from defeat.
There was no such consolation Friday afternoon, as Holtz's Bulls, staked to a 17-3 lead just before halftime, pulled together an ineffective offense, a consistently disappointing third-down defense and awful special teams play, helping Louisville pull away to a 34-24 win.
"Defensively, we were poor. You shouldn't leave that many guys uncontested, wide open," Holtz said. "We did not play very smart today as a football team. … Take 17 points off the board and ask how big special teams were in this game. I think it was absolutely huge."
The Bulls (5-6, 1-5 Big East) are in serious jeopardy of missing a bowl game. They must beat West Virginia (7-3) on Thursday to be eligible, then hope a bowl is willing to invite a team that lost six of its last eight.
If the season has slipped away from Holtz and USF, which has its most losses in six years, so too has its fan base. Just six days earlier, the Bulls announced 57,572 fans for a home game against Miami, but this time, saddled with an 11 a.m. Friday morning kickoff, the Bulls announced just 33,416 — USF's smallest crowd in more than five years. The actual attendance was just 19,115, less than half of the 46,245 actually there for Miami on Saturday.
And after handling loss after loss as a unified team, there were signs of frustration within the locker room, as redshirt junior running back Darrell Scott said complaints were made among players about costly turnovers.
"We've got to come together first. We can't split apart," Scott said. "(Saturday) we have off, and the next day we've got to get together, work and sort this out … We were kind of bickering a little amongst each other. We've got to stay together. We will. You know how you point fingers for turnovers and stuff. We're not used to all these L's."
The offense played without starting quarterback B.J. Daniels, who hurt his throwing shoulder in the Miami loss. Backup Bobby Eveld, in just his second start, struggled to move the ball in the second half for the second week in a row.
Whether by special teams mistakes or offensive turnovers, USF's defense faced many short fields — Louisville (7-5, 5-2) had four scoring drives shorter than 40 yards as it clinched a share of first place in the Big East. USF's offense struggled enough in the second half that the defense was on the field more than twice as often.
"We kind of like it for the game to be on our backs, but it kind of wears down on us a little bit," senior defensive tackle Keith McCaskill said. "We have to keep a positive mind and just keep going out there and fighting."
Bold playcalling helped the Bulls to a 17-3 lead, with a 35-yard touchdown pass on a fourth-and-3 gamble, then another touchdown was set up by a fourth-and-1 conversion from the wildcat formation, with receiver Victor Marc (who muffed a punt return earlier) taking the direct snap.
Momentum shifted to Louisville in the final minute of the half, when Senorise Perry returned a short squib kickoff 54 yards to the USF 25 with 35 seconds left. Two plays later, quarterback Teddy Bridgewater found fellow freshman DeVante Parker for a 17-yard touchdown, cutting the Bulls' lead to 17-10 with 22 seconds on the clock.
"That kickoff return was huge," Bridgewater said. "We were killing ourselves early in the game with penalties and just not finishing. For him to get a return like that, he just broke it loose. It was just what we needed, and it got us started."
Trailing 24-20 in the fourth quarter and facing fourth and 1 at the USF 13, the Cardinals converted, then got another Bridgewater touchdown pass for a 27-24 lead with 9:38 left.
With 5:43 left, USF got the ball on its 6, but its last hopes ended when freshman receiver Andre Davis fumbled at the USF 17; two plays later, Louisville scored another touchdown and the game was out of reach.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Greg Auman can be reached at [email protected]bay.com or (813) 226-3346. View his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/usf.