TAMPA — As devastating as last year's midseason collapse was for USF, the Bulls pulled out of that fall in time to win three games in November.
On Saturday, as the Bulls dropped their third straight game, an embarrassing 49-16 humbling at the hands of a Rutgers team that came in with a losing record, there were signs that USF might not get out of a tailspin that is accelerating.
"Our football team is certainly down, about as down as you can get," coach Jim Leavitt said after the most lopsided home loss in his program's 12-year history. "We'll rise up. I don't have any doubt about that."
But will they? USF (6-4, 1-4 Big East) saw its offense give up six turnovers, and the defense allowed Rutgers (5-5, 4-2) to score touchdowns on five of six possessions at one point. Neither coordinator had an explanation for the disappointing showing.
"We got our tails beat pretty bad in the second half. They just owned us," said defensive coordinator Wally Burnham, who had 16 days to prepare. "Second half, we couldn't do anything. … It's a mystery to me, too. Hell, if I had an answer, I would have damn sure corrected it."
The Bulls never have given up so many points at home, never lost by so much at home, and never had so many huge questions looming over them: Will USF win again this season? Will it salvage the fast-dwindling honor of any bowl game at all? And why have the Bulls fallen so hard in losing four of their last five games?
"I have no idea why. It's basic fundamentals," offensive coordinator Greg Gregory said. "… They are hard things to explain. It's hard to account for those. Maybe we're asking them to do things they can't do. … We have to go back and look at everything and try to find a football team by next Sunday."
USF's defense gave up a 93-yard touchdown from Mike Teel to Kenny Britt, and allowed the Scarlet Knights to convert 10 of 14 third downs. All of the trademark frustrations in USF's 2008 season were there — red-zone inefficiency, costly turnovers, 10 penalties for 100 yards, one field goal blocked, another missed, a botched extra point.
Quarterback Matt Grothe, who threw just three interceptions as USF opened 6-1, has thrown eight interceptions in the three losses since, including three against Rutgers.
To make matters worse, he sprained his left ankle in the fourth quarter and wore a boot on his injured foot after the game.
"It seems like the last few weeks, everything goes the other way. We can never get anything to go our way," Grothe said. "It's hard to win when you can't get anything to go your way. … It's no fun. It (stinks), quite frankly."
After USF's last game, a 24-10 loss at Cincinnati, linebacker Tyrone McKenzie "guaranteed" the Bulls' season would not go down the drain. He and his fellow seniors called a players-only meeting last week, trying to get the team to play with passion, to have fun again.
On Saturday, he saw a 49 on the scoreboard at Raymond James Stadium, where much of a season-low announced crowd of 47,216 left early.
"It's on the players. It's our fault. I take full responsibility," McKenzie said. "It's disrespectful. You practice all week, you go out and perform like that and see a score like that on the scoreboard. There's no excuses. We just got a butt-whipping."
USF is assured of a losing conference record for the first time since it joined the Big East. Down 28-16 with the ball in the third quarter, the Bulls lost a turnover, then saw Rutgers score the first of three touchdowns to close out the game. Leavitt said he was surprised to see his team not competing to the end.
"That's the first time I've seen our team do that in a long time," he said. "I've been here a number of years, and if you look at our football team, that doesn't happen often. Why, again, I don't know. We'll try to figure it out."
Saturday's 49-16 loss to Rutgers is the most lopsided home loss in USF's 11-year history, and fifth-most lopsided ever. The 49 points allowed are the most ever for the Bulls at home. USF's five worst losses since starting play in 1997.
Arkansas (A) '02 42-3 39
Midd. Tenn. (A) '00 45-9 36
Oregon (N) '07 56-21 35
Southern Miss (A) '00 41-7 34
Rutgers (H) '08 49-16 33