LOUISVILLE, Ky. — It was a loss that all but knocked USF out of contention for a Big East crown and a BCS bowl, and could knock the Bulls out of the Top 25 for the first time this season.
But Saturday's 24-20 loss to Louisville might hurt most for the No. 14 Bulls because it seemed so painfully familiar, so much like last month's loss to Pittsburgh and other late-game letdowns.
Same formula: dig a deep hole early, claw out of it to take the lead in the fourth quarter, then watch as the defense allows the opponent to immediately march down the field and take the lead right back for good.
"If you can't hold a lead, you probably don't deserve to win," defensive coordinator Wally Burnham said. "Very disappointing, Pittsburgh (a 26-21 loss on Oct. 2) and this one. We've struggled in the fourth quarter before. It hasn't been our strong point."
Down 14-3 in the second quarter, USF (6-2, 1-2 Big East) rallied behind quarterback Matt Grothe, whose second touchdown pass with 9:22 left put the Bulls ahead 20-17.
"We thought we had them," linebacker Tyrone McKenzie said. "We came out on defense knowing we had to stop them. We didn't do that."
Louisville's Hunter Cantwell answered, marching the Cardinals (5-2, 1-1) down the field and hitting Scott Long for a 24-yard touchdown. The Bulls had two more opportunities to win — and almost a third — but sacks, penalties and turnovers doomed the Bulls.
"We certainly had our chances," said Leavitt, who is 0-3 at a stadium for the first time. "Their defense stopped our offense; our defense didn't stop their offense. What can I say about it?"
On USF's first chance, Grothe was pressured on three straight plays, netting his fifth sack, an incompletion and grounding penalty. The Bulls made another defensive stop, but the offense missed again.
Even after Grothe's interception with 3:03 to play put Louisville on the USF 27, the defense again stopped Louisville. The Cardinals missed a 37-yard field goal with 1:24 left, but McKenzie was flagged for defensive holding, an automatic first down that allowed Louisville to run out the clock.
Grothe threw for 344 yards and two touchdowns, but with no running game — the Bulls rushed for a record-low 8 yards — Louisville put constant pressure on him, especially in the fourth quarter.
Three injuries hurt the running game. Mike Ford, the leading rusher among running backs coming in, didn't play after the first quarter, nor did right tackle Marc Dile, who left with an unknown injury and was replaced by freshman Danous Estenor. Tight end Trent Pupello (concussion) missed the second half.
"When you take those guys out of it … we just didn't feel like we were strong enough," said Leavitt, whose team was penalized 14 times for 109 yards. "When we did try to run, we were struggling a little bit, and playing from behind quite a bit."
USF got strong play from defensive end George Selvie, who had two sacks among four tackles for loss; defensive tackle Aaron Harris, who had three tackles for loss; and linebacker Kion Wilson, who had his first interception as a Bull. All that was a footnote to the defense because it did not make stops when it needed to most.
"It hurts," Selvie said. "We lost the game. It rests on our defense's shoulders. We didn't step up and they scored."
The Bulls have little time to be frustrated, as they're back on the road for Thursday's game at Cincinnati, where they've lost both times they've played.
"It's going to be tough. … I think they're going to be very down," Leavitt said. "We have to put it behind us or we'll have no chance. It's going to be interesting to see how strong our team is."