TAMPA — As bad as USF was playing, as nonexistent as the offense was, the Bulls still led Syracuse 9-6 early in the fourth quarter Saturday when a punt was downed on the Syracuse 2-yard line.
But the Bulls' defense, which had contained the Orange all afternoon, allowed a 98-yard, 14-play march down the field, with Ryan Nassib throwing a 3-yard touchdown to Marcus Sales for a 13-9 lead. USF's offense had two chances to answer but the Bulls couldn't even cross their own 40, and coach Skip Holtz's first Big East season opened with a loss at Raymond James Stadium.
"We definitely had plenty of opportunities today," said Holtz, whose team faces a trip to West Virginia on Thursday night. "We just really struggled getting anything going. We couldn't get any consistency in the passing game. We couldn't get any consistency in the running game. It's really frustrating. This is a down locker room right now."
For a time, it looked as if USF (3-2) could win without offense. Sophomore Lindsey Lamar took a third-quarter kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown and a 9-6 lead after the extra point was blocked.
Twice, the defense held for a three-and-out series after getting the lead, but Syracuse's long march was the only one it needed for a huge win — the Orange (4-1) had exactly one Big East win in each of the previous four seasons, going 4-31 in the conference since USF joined it in 2005. It was just the second league road win in that span for Syracuse, which had lost all five meetings against USF by an average of 24 points.
"You hate letting anyone drive on you, whatever the drive is. But the ones when they drive the length of the field are the ones that hurt you," said defensive end Craig Marshall, who had three sacks. "For them to be able to do that, it's just demoralizing to a defense."
Quarterback B.J. Daniels ended two drives with interceptions inside the Syracuse 15 — one by Tampa Catholic grad Jeremi Wilkes — and was just 9-of-23 passing with a career-low minus-1 rushing yards. He was unable to answer the Orange barrage of blitzes, and twice, Daniels went deep incomplete, failing to notice a receiver running open elsewhere downfield.
"It's not like I could sit back there all day and just pick them apart, to just look everywhere," said Daniels, sacked four times. "There are some times that guys will be open that won't be in your reads. Sometimes you're in it, sometimes you miss them."
Six times, the Bulls were inside the Syracuse 40-yard line — three times on drives that started at the Syracuse 42 or better — and the only points those drives produced were on a 31-yard field goal by Maikon Bonani, who missed his other try.
"Offensively, you can't score three points in a conference game and expect to win, especially with some of the positive field position created by the defense and special teams today," Holtz said.
USF's last chance ended at its 40, when after two short runs, Daniels missed on two passes. The Bulls now have two of their toughest games — at West Virginia and at defending Big East champion Cincinnati — in the next 13 days, a short turnaround that could amplify Saturday's problems.
"This will be a film that's going to be sick to watch," Holtz said. "We had so many opportunities. We just couldn't capitalize on them. … I'm not going to jump up and down and throw things and rant and rave and yell and scream. At some point, if we want to be a good football team, we have to learn to be productive and take advantage of the situations we have."
Greg Auman can be reached at email@example.com. Follow his coverage at bulls.tampabay.com.