TAMPA — Close games are something Skip Holtz is used to dealing with as a head football coach.
In his final three years at East Carolina, Holtz went 15-4 in games decided by six points or fewer. Those wins accounted for 58 percent of the Pirates' total from 2007-09. USF, in the same span, won one fewer game overall but went just 3-6 in close contests (12 percent of their total wins).
So the question upon Holtz's hiring at USF was which trend would persist: His success in close games, or USF's struggles?
The Bulls went 4-2 in tight games in a promising first season under Holtz, beating Rutgers by one point, edging Louisville and Miami by three in overtime and holding off Clemson with a five-point win.
In the past two seasons, however, the Bulls have gone 2-7 in games decided by six or fewer, including Saturday's 27-25 loss at Louisville.
A big part of this is an unshakable penchant for losing leads late. In 32 games under Holtz, USF has lost seven games in which it had a fourth-quarter lead and another four in which the score was tied in the final quarter. Only four times have the Bulls rallied from fourth-quarter deficits to win — and in two of those, they lost fourth-quarter leads and had to win in overtime.
Holtz said the team's familiarity with close losses makes each new one more difficult, a painful reminder that changing a single play might change the final outcome. This experience hasn't yet helped the Bulls handle such situations to greater success.
"It does get harder," Holtz said. "It gets harder because you begin to question. Everybody wants an answer why.
"You can summarize (the Louisville loss) a lot of different ways. You can say in their minute and a half (at the end), they went down and scored; in our minute and a half, we didn't. You can say on their fourth and goal, they got in by that much, and on our fourth and goal, we didn't make it by that much. You probably change one of about 30 plays in that game, the outcome's different. But you can't. So what we have to do is improve those 30 plays."
JUST NOT RUTGERS: Saturday is an ironic Homecoming game for USF freshman LB Tashon Whitehurst, who backed out of a commitment to Syracuse the week before signing day to choose the Bulls, in part because they were much closer to his Gainesville home. Whitehurst, who turned heads with a blocked punt against Florida State and could be a starter next season, said Orange coach Doug Marrone was understanding when he called about his change but oddly relieved it wasn't another Big East rival that beat him.
"He was excited. Not really excited, but he was happy for me because he thought I was going to say Rutgers," said Whitehurst, whose family will be in attendance Saturday. "He didn't want me to go to Rutgers. He was like, 'That's a great choice for you and I hope you have a good future. That's a good decision for yourself, close to home.' "
THIS AND THAT: USF women's soccer, closing the regular season strong with a 10-5-2 record, hosts Louisville on Sunday at 1 in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament. The Bulls, with an RPI of 56, could help their chances at an NCAA berth by beating the Cardinals (RPI 43). … USF men's soccer needs a strong finish just to make the Big East tournament, and a win Saturday at St. John's helped considerably. If the Bulls (2-2-3 in Big East) win Friday at DePaul (0-6-1), most scenarios have them in the Big East field, and some with a home game as well.