TAMPA — However disappointing the Pittsburgh loss was, however frustrating the Connecticut loss was, Saturday's 37-34 loss to Cincinnati might have been worse for USF, which lost a lead in the final seconds and dropped to 0-3 in conference play for the first time.
USF (4-3, 0-3 Big East) already had blown a 10-point fourth-quarter lead. But starting with 3:37 left, it marched 83 yards, retaking the lead when B.J. Daniels hit Andre Davis for a 10-yard touchdown with 1:27 to play.
Staked with closing out a win in front of a Raymond James Stadium crowd announced at 44,248, USF's defense let Cincinnati do its own marching. The Bearcats went 70 yards in 75 seconds and won on a 2-yard run by quarterback Zach Collaros with 12 seconds left.
"I'm at a loss. It's like a burning feeling in your heart. It's empty," said USF end Ryne Giddins, part of a defense that allowed 20 fourth-quarter points.
It was the largest fourth-quarter lead the Bulls have blown in a loss. And USF had its share of missed opportunities.
Two touchdowns were wiped out by holding penalties during the same drive, which ended with a field goal. A field goal — after failing to punch it in from the 3 — was botched when the snap went through the holder's hands. And USF allowed about 20 seconds to run off the clock just before halftime, surrendering a shot at the end zone to be sure of a tying field goal.
"My heart breaks for our players," Bulls coach Skip Holtz said. "The guys competed their tails off. I thought they put it all out on the field. It's disheartening because I look at how hard they played and how hard they worked."
The loss spoiled a strong game by Daniels, who set his career high in passing yards for the third time this season. He finished with a school-record 409 and three touchdowns, though he also had an early fumble and an interception in Cincinnati territory in the fourth quarter.
"It was an up-and-down, gut-wrenching feeling," Daniels said of seeing Cincinnati's final drive. "I definitely didn't feel good. It's just a tough situation."
USF committed 10 penalties for 109 yards, resetting the high for yards under Holtz for the second week in a row. The second-year coach declined to criticize his players about the flags until he saw video of the game, saying the Big East acknowledged making mistakes among last week's nine penalties against the Bulls.
"I don't know what a penalty is anymore," Holtz said.
USF's defense caught breaks early when Cincinnati (6-1, 2-0) made it inside its 20 twice without scoring points thanks to an end zone interception by cornerback JaQuez Jenkins and a missed field goal. Tied at the half, the teams traded touchdowns in the third quarter. Then USF scored 10 points, Victor Marc's 40-yard punt return setting up a Daniels touchdown to tight end Andreas Shields for a 27-17 lead.
Daniels stepped up on the 83-yard touchdown drive to retake the lead. But USF's defense couldn't close the door. Collaros (389 yards, three touchdowns) completed a 33-yard pass to the USF 22 then a 21-yard pass to the 6. And after a pass interference flag in the end zone with 20 seconds left, he went up the middle for the winning score.
USF's three-game losing streak matches the longest in the program's 15-year history. And now the Bulls have a bye week before going to Rutgers on Nov. 5. At 4-3, the Bulls need two wins among their final five games just to be bowl eligible for the seventh year in a row.
"It's hard to say we're ready to win when we're 0-3 in the last three weeks. We've had our opportunities. There are a lot of growing pains going on right now," Holtz said. "As I told the team, when we are tired enough of losing and we are willing to correct some of the mistakes we are making, we have a great opportunity to win."