PISCATAWAY, N.J. — In so many ways — emotionally, statistically, historically — USF has never lost the way it lost Saturday night.
In 15 years of football, the Bulls had never lost four in a row. In eight previous overtime games, the Bulls had always escaped with victory. And armed with a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter, the Bulls never knew the hollow feeling of loss they felt when Rutgers rallied in the final eight minutes for a 20-17 overtime victory at High Point Solutions Stadium.
"The losses are almost unbearable to go through as a team," said kicker Maikon Bonani, who missed a potential winner from 27 yards as regulation time expired. "It's my job to put it through the uprights. I had an opportunity to win the game and I didn't. That solely rests on my shoulders. There are a bunch of plays in a football game, but for that one play, it's my responsibility to do my job, and I failed to do so tonight."
USF led 17-3 with eight minutes left, only to see Rutgers' Jeremy Deering, a Leto High grad, take the kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown. Needing an 80-yard touchdown drive to tie with 3:23 left, Rutgers did just that, with backup quarterback Chas Dodd hitting receiver Mohamed Sanu seven times on the drive, then throwing a 34-yard touchdown to Brandon Coleman to tie the score.
Rutgers had a chance to win in regulation, but Kayvon Webster intercepted a pass, putting USF at its 26 with 31 seconds left. B.J. Daniels threw a 34-yard pass to Demetris Murray, then scrambled 30 yards to the Rutgers 10 to set up the kick, only to see Bonani miss with 2 seconds left. Then in overtime, Daniels saw a third-down pass tipped by tight end Evan Landi and intercepted by Rutgers' Duron Harmon, setting up the winning 37-yard field goal by San San Te.
"That one hurt a little bit," coach Skip Holtz said. "I am so proud of this team — the heart, the energy, the passion that they're playing the game with. … You rush for 221 yards and your defense gives up minus-7, statistically you're not supposed to lose those games. … It's not like we had a million mistakes tonight. We didn't have the penalties. We're getting things corrected, but obviously we are a work in progress."
After a 4-0 start, USF (4-4, 0-4 Big East) has its first-ever four-game losing streak, as well as Holtz's first ever as a head coach. The Bulls must win two of their final four games just to salvage bowl eligibility, or else miss a bowl game for the first time since joining the Big East in 2005.
"We're all we've got. We're down here in New Jersey and it's just us," Daniels said. "We don't have the fan base and things like that. We've been with each other in Vero (Beach), been with each other all summer, so we're definitely a close-knit group."
USF's defense had held Rutgers to 106 yards entering the fourth quarter, but coach Greg Schiano turned to Dodd, who sparked the team by throwing for 125 yards and a touchdown in the final quarter.
The Bulls now have to find a spark, starting with another road challenge Friday at Syracuse.
"There is no time to put my head down," Bonani said. "Tomorrow, I have to be at practice and correct the mistakes that I've made and we'll go on as a football team. There is nothing that is going to come between this team. Not a field goal, not an incompletion, not a fumble, anything. We are a family, and we are going to stick together through it all."
Greg Auman can be reached at email@example.com and at (813) 226-3346. Check out his blog at tampabay.com/blogs/bulls and follow him at Twitter.com/gregauman.