On a day when USF all but surrendered its late-season hopes of playing for a first Big East title, mistakes on both sides of the ball and special teams kept the Bulls from looking much like a championship team in Saturday's 17-10 loss to first-place Pittsburgh.
USF (6-4, 3-3) struggled on offense, with quarterback B.J. Daniels throwing for just 25 yards on 14 attempts in the second half, unable to complete a pass longer than 7 yards after a 3-3 stalemate in the first half. Pittsburgh (6-4, 4-1) did enough to stay in the driver's seat for the Big East crown, getting 105 yards rushing from Dion Lewis and clutch plays from quarterback Tino Sunseri down the stretch.
"We certainly didn't play our best game," Bulls coach Skip Holtz said. "It's hard when you know you're going against a good football team. We moved the ball, played hard. We weren't great on third down, and we didn't have a lot of big plays like we've had the last couple of weeks that have given us the opportunity to put some points on the board."
Even the defense, which had held Pittsburgh in check in the first half, gave up back-to-back touchdown drives in the second half and allowed the Panthers to run the clock for nearly six minutes late in the game, leaving the Bulls just 1:31 for a last-chance drive.
"It was disappointing. If you want to be a championship defense, you can't let them take the game and the clock," defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said. "We had opportunities to get them stopped, and we didn't get it done. … We had a coverage bust on one touchdown, and we didn't tackle on the other one. If you want to be a championship defense, you have to be able to do it all."
In all four losses this season, the Bulls have scored 14 points or fewer, and the Bulls rarely ventured into Pittsburgh territory. Take away a first-quarter possession that started on the Pitt 35 and netted a field goal, and the Bulls didn't take a single offensive snap inside the Pitt 35.
Pittsburgh effectively took away the deep ball by any means necessary — five times, they took a 15-yard pass-interference penalty, four on deep passes to receiver Dontavia Bogan. The lone spark on offense came on a 45-yard touchdown run on a reverse by freshman Terrence Mitchell to tie the score at 10 late in the third quarter, but USF allowed Pittsburgh to drive 80 yards for a touchdown on the ensuing possession.
"We had our opportunities to make the stop on defense, and we had opportunities to score some more points on offense," Holtz said. "We weren't able to execute on either side of the ball and get it done, and Pitt was."
After Pittsburgh missed a field goal, USF's offense got one final shot from its 26 with 1:31 to play and one timeout, but it wasn't pretty, starting with a sack and a 4-yard completion inbounds. Given one final shot from his 47-yard line, Daniels was intercepted by Pitt cornerback Antwuan Reed, who had four of the five pass interferences called on him, to end it.
"It was tough, but we definitely have to move on from it," said Daniels, whose mobility was limited by a leg injury that had him wearing a brace on his right knee. "We didn't do enough, obviously. We moved the ball pretty well up and down the field, but we need to get that ball in the end zone."
Pitt is both the preseason favorite to win the league and the team best poised to represent the conference in a BCS bowl. USF — now likely headed to a lesser bowl such as the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl in St. Petersburg — has lost the motivation of playing for a conference title, but Holtz said there are other things to inspire his team in its remaining games at Miami and at home against Connecticut.
"It's not just that you're playing for something. You play for each other," he said. "You don't go out that hard just because every guy on the team wants a ring. We've all got goals we want to accomplish, and it's unfortunate those things are taken away with a loss today, but we still have an awful lot to play for. … I don't expect this team to lay down."