TAMPA — When USF quarterback B.J. Daniels went down with a shoulder injury early in the third quarter of a 3-3 stalemate, had there been any lingering doubt, Saturday officially became a game USF's defense would have to win.
And as well as USF's defense had played, holding a potent Miami offense in check on its first 12 drives, the Bulls found themselves in a terribly familiar position in the fourth quarter, needing to make a stop in the closing minutes of a tight game.
The Bulls had the same result as in last-minute losses to Cincinnati and Rutgers. Miami went from its 20-yard line to the Bulls' 19 over the final 5:43, kicking a winning 36-yard field goal as time expired for a 6-3 win at Raymond James Stadium.
"We, as a defense, have to just finish it. We have to go out when they have the ball and close it out," said defensive tackle Cory Grissom, who had one of USF's six sacks. "When a starting quarterback goes down, when anybody goes down, we have to put it on our backs, just hold them."
The Bulls (5-5) remain one win from bowl eligibility, while Miami (6-5) now has at least that consolation in a season of close losses. Hurricanes quarterback Jacory Harris, who threw for 259 yards, engineered a 15-play drive, converting three third downs to set up Jake Wieclaw's kick.
"It's exciting," Miami coach Al Golden said. "We've played a tough schedule. … We've had as much adversity as anybody could possibly have and withstand in one year, and our kids just hung together. This is a team win against a very good team and, obviously, an excellent defense. We knew coming in they were excellent."
Miami had scored at least 19 points each game this season, and six is the fewest points the Bulls have ever allowed in a loss.
"This one certainly doesn't fall on the defense," Holtz said. "You give up three points during the course of the game, especially when the offense was going three and out predominantly the entire second half. I certainly don't put this on the defense."
The Bulls had yards — 216 in the first half — but few points with Daniels at quarterback. And without his dual threat to run or pass, USF couldn't move with any consistency under backup Bobby Eveld, who had not taken a snap in more than two months.
Eveld, coincidentally, replaced Daniels at halftime last year against Miami, rallying the Bulls to an overtime victory. Saturday, there was no such marching, as USF totaled 75 yards on 17 plays after Daniels' injury, getting no closer than the UM 39-yard line.
"It's a heartbreaking deal every time it happens. This time is no exception," senior center Chaz Hine said. "It's very disappointing. My heart goes out to the defense and to all the players. We didn't play well enough to win."
The defense, however, had held Miami — immediately after Daniels' injury, the Hurricanes drove from their 19 to the USF 15, only to be driven back with a key sack, then Wieclaw's 41-yard field goal was partly blocked by defensive end Ryne Giddins.
On the next three series, USF forced a three-and-out from Miami's offense, but the Bulls offense couldn't answer with so much as a field goal to win.
"I thought our defense played a great game. Unfortunately, offensively we weren't able to move the ball much in the second half after B.J. went out," Holtz said. "We couldn't get anything going. We said we'd try not to turn the ball over, punt it away, make them drive 80 yards and play an old-school field-position football game. I felt like we did that."
The Bulls stay home for their final two games, but they're against two teams — Louisville on Friday, then West Virginia on Dec. 1 — battling for the Big East championship. Win one of those and USF has the consolation of bowl eligibility, but even that will be a challenge if Daniels is out.