TAMPA — Playing to the biggest home crowd in the program's history, USF hung around against No. 4 Florida State longer than most fans on either side might have expected Saturday night.
The Bulls got as close as 13-10 in the third quarter after a blocked punt, but the Seminoles pulled away in the second half, getting out with a 30-17 victory before an announced 69,383 at Raymond James Stadium, a record for a USF home game.
"It was the kind of game I thought it was going to be. I thought South Florida would play their tails off, and they did," FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said. "They played very physical. Our kids played hard, competed well, made enough mistakes not to put that thing away. Had some critical issues in the game, but it was a hard-fought game."
USF (2-3) would get no closer than 13-10 because FSU's defense clamped down, allowing 18 yards in the second quarter and 11 in the third, which ended with a fumble returned for a touchdown and a 30-10 lead. Three years after USF's 17-7 win in Tallahassee, the Seminoles (5-0) got their revenge on the Bulls' homefield, with plenty of garnet-and-gold in the stands.
"I give Florida State a lot of credit. They did the things they had to do to get a win," USF coach Skip Holtz said. "I was really proud of our football team, proud of the way they competed, proud of the way they played together, hung in there, the way they played a 60-minute game."
FSU's defense hit another gear in the second quarter, allowing a total of 7 yards over six possessions, with no first downs, allowing the Seminoles to extend their lead from 7-3 to 30-10, with the Bulls' only points coming after Tashon Whitehurst's blocked punt.
USF's defense did well to hold FSU — averaging 56 points coming in — to a 13-3 halftime lead. But after USF cut it to 13-10, the Seminoles pulled away by taking advantage on third down.
After two goal-line stops, EJ Manuel passed 1 yard to tight end Kevin Haplea on third down to make it 20-10 with 5:09 left in the third quarter. And facing third and 1 on the next drive, Manuel hit receiver Kenny Shaw for a 47-yard gain to set up a short field goal and a 23-10 lead.
Manuel finished 19-for-26 for 242 yards, while Chris Thompson and Lonnie Pryor combined for 139 yards to lead the running game.
"He made a lot of big throws on third down, hit some big third and-longs, hit some critical passes, got us down there," Fisher said.
The game didn't seem out of reach for USF until the final play of the third quarter. Facing third and 12 following a holding penalty from its own 23, USF backup quarterback Matt Floyd, in the game for one play after B.J. Daniels was shaken up, was sacked and fumbled. FSU linebacker Christian Jones returned the loose ball 12 yards for a touchdown and a 20-point lead.
"Obviously the big momentum swing was the hold on third down," Holtz said of the play that negated a 20-yard Daniels run to the FSU 47. "It brought the play back, B.J. got hurt on that play, had to come out of the football game. Matt went in, tough assignment to go against that defense, your first play is a (third-and-12) play. We didn't chip the end, and the end came scot-free off the blind side and created seven points. That's a 10-point swing."
USF still didn't go down easy, as Daniels hit receiver Derrick Hopkins for a 37-yard gain to set up a 3-yard Daniels touchdown run, cutting the FSU lead to 30-17. USF sacked Manuel twice on the ensuing possession, giving USF the ball near midfield down 13, but the Bulls couldn't get closer than the FSU 43.
USF has lost three in a row, and 10 of 13 overall, and finishes September with a losing record for the first time since its opening season in 1997.
The Bulls go back to conference play Saturday with a trip to Philadelphia for Temple's first Big East game since rejoining the league.
FSU travels to face N.C. State on Saturday.