TAMPA — The offense was good enough. When the Bulls look back at a game that slipped through the cracks, that's the first thing they will tell each other.
B.J. Daniels was elusive enough, and the running game was solid enough, and the offensive line was sturdy enough. When the Bulls consider all the yardage they piled up, it will be easy to wonder how they finished second in Thursday night's game against Cincinnati.
For much of the night, the defense was good enough, too. It controlled Tony Pike, the Bearcats quarterback who had been linked romantically with the Heisman Trophy. It stopped the run cold. For a while, it controlled third down.
Given that, how in the world did the Bulls misplace victory? How did a game in which they seemed to have a chance turn into a 17-point defeat?
Alas, the answer was in the details.
Cincinnati, the nation's eighth-ranked team, beat the Bulls because of a basic, fundamental reason. The Bearcats were more basic, and they were more fundamental. The didn't turn the ball over at crucial times. They didn't give away a football field worth of penalties. They didn't drop as many passes, miss as many tackles or waste as many opportunities.
For the next week, it's safe to assume they won't be muttering nearly as often about the things that might have been.
For USF, a loss like this is going to be difficult to reconcile. The Bulls had so much to gain — a 6-0 record, perhaps a Top 15 ranking, certainly a leg up in the Big East race. And they let it all fall to the grass. In a nationally televised game, in front of 63,976 fans, they were too sloppy to win.
Sometimes, fans get fooled by the nightly highlights. They think games are won on big plays by big players. Not this one. The Bearcats won because they had fewer penalties, fewer turnovers, fewer squandered chances. They won because they had the calm, the poise, to feel as if they were in control even when they gained 100 fewer yards than the Bulls.
How did this happen? It happened because Cincinnati was better in the second half than in the first, and USF was not. It happened because the Bulls had two interceptions, a missed field goal and were stopped on downs while in Bearcat territory. And it happened because of the way two teams reacted to the same injury.
The score was 17-10 Cincinnati early in the second half when Pike left. Who knew that would be worse news for the Bulls than the Bearcats? Zach Collaros came in and rushed for 132 yards, including 75 yards for a score on third and 11. Put it this way: If Pike wins the Heisman, Collaros ought to be up for the Nobel Prize.
That was the admirable thing about the Bearcats. Nothing fazed them. Not the crowd, not the cameras, not the pressure, not losing Pike. They protected the ball, they protected the end zone, and in the end, they protected their No. 8 ranking.
In the weeks to come, perhaps the Bulls would be wise to emulate as much of that as possible.
I know, I know. That's your concern here, isn't it? That defeat will somehow turn into disarray. That a great start will result in a great disappointment. That's the recent history of the program. You could almost sense it as the huge crowd disappeared. It was almost like, "We'll see you next year when the Bulls are 5-0 again, deal?"
It could happen. Miami, West Virginia, Pitt and Louisville are still on the schedule.
But if you're talking about talent, this Bulls team is too good for that to happen. If B.J. Daniels matures, if the team can stop giving away a quarter's worth of yardage in penalties, if it can squeeze more touchdowns out of all of those yards, if it can do the little things that good teams do, it ought to be able to compete.
Consider the dropped pass on fourth and 3 late in the first quarter. Consider Daniels' interception that was returned 83 yards to set up the first Bearcat touchdown. Consider all the penalties that came on other scoring drives. Consider a 50-yard field goal that seemed to miss by about 55.
Consider, too, the way fortunes changed in the second half. Suddenly, it was USF on the run, not Cincinnati. The Bulls didn't tackle as well. They didn't move the ball as well. They didn't catch as well.
In the end, that was the biggest disappointment. Not that USF lost, but it contributed so mightily to the result.
If this season is going to end up better than the previous ones, the Bulls are going to have to be more solid than this.