USF Bulls' continuing fade is more obvious now

Bulls center Kevin McCaskill, left, comforts his brother Keith after another narrow defeat, this time 30-27.

WILLIE J. ALLEN JR. | Times

Bulls center Kevin McCaskill, left, comforts his brother Keith after another narrow defeat, this time 30-27.

TAMPA

Remember how USF seemed stuck in a rut?

How, year after year, the Bulls were on the cusp of contention in the Big East Conference and on the fringe of the Top 25 in all of the polls?

Remember how frustrating that all seemed?

Well, those are officially the good old days.

After waiting so long for the Bulls to finally take the next step forward, they instead fell on their rears with a giant thud in 2011.

The 30-27 loss to No. 22 West Virginia on Thursday was the final heartbreak in a season of near-misses and could-have-beens.

Rarely does one game so perfectly sum up the effort of an entire season. For this game was, at times, infuriating, hopeful, exhilarating and heartbreaking. Just like 2011.

"Not a lot of words you can say in the locker room to take the pain and the hurt away," coach Skip Holtz said. "This football team has literally lost four games on the last play of a game. You can't ask this team to play with any more passion."

Holtz has every right to be proud of his team. They played their hearts out right up until the final second of the final game, and they are probably more talented than a 5-7 record.

But it was not all fate, and it was not all misfortune that led to this moment. The Bulls got what they deserved because they did not make plays in too many fourth quarters.

"The difference between teams in this conference is minute, and the outcome is usually decided by a mistake or a bounce," defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said. "Last year, those bounces fell our way. This year, they went against us.

"I'm not disappointed in the way our guys played at all. I'm disappointed in the way things turned out, but we were this close to a great season."

And they were even closer to one of the great comebacks in program history.

The Bulls were down, they were up, they were tied. They had a victory in sight and a winning season in their grip when quarterback B.J. Daniels had the ball stripped at the West Virginia 28 with a little more than three minutes remaining.

From there, you knew the outcome. It didn't matter that the Mountaineers were going to be out of timeouts, or that they would be backed up with penalties. You had seen this game too many times already this season, and you knew how it would end.

"Devastating," Snyder said.

The short field goal as time expired was like the closing credits on a year gone bad.

Turns out, this season was everything USF had successfully avoided since joining the Big East. A losing record. A last-place finish. A long December at home during bowl season.

Have the Bulls lost close games? A ton. Have injuries hurt them? At times. Have they been a better team than their record indicates? Probably.

But this is a bottom-line sport, and that line just dropped a few notches.

The shame of it all is there was an opportunity to take a big step forward.

Florida is having its worst season in 25 years. Miami is under NCAA investigation. Florida State was a disappointment, and UCF is still looking for a way into the BCS.

Never in USF's history has the state been so ripe for the taking. USF wasn't going to outrecruit UF or FSU, but it might have stolen a player or two.

No doubt about it, USF is still in its infancy. Tradition? Name recognition? Fan support? They are all still a fraction of what exists at most major universities.

On the other hand, the Bulls are in their seventh season in a BCS conference. Entire recruiting classes have come and gone, and USF has made no push forward.

In fact, the Bulls have been going backward for some time now. They have been able to mask it by padding their victory totals with the Woffords, Ball States and Charleston Southerns of the world, but the Bulls have grown weaker in the Big East.

After going 12-9 in their first three seasons in the league, they are 9-20 since. Only Syracuse has a worse record in the conference since USF joined in 2005.

You can say this was an unlucky season. You can say fate was not on USF's side. But in the end, you could also say this was the most disappointing season USF has ever had.

USF Bulls' continuing fade is more obvious now 12/01/11 [Last modified: Friday, December 2, 2011 12:40am]

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