TAMPA — Just when it looked like USF would be the one making the fourth-quarter comeback, West Virginia dealt it one final, painful come-from-ahead loss, rallying for a 30-27 win Thursday night.
The Bulls, who rallied from 10 points down to take a 27-20 lead in the fourth, were in position for a go-ahead field goal. But quarterback B.J. Daniels lost a fumble at the West Virginia 28 with 3:02 left.
And the Mountaineers did what so many teams have done this season: took a victory away from the Bulls.
On fourth and 10 from the USF 42 with 13 seconds to play, Geno Smith completed a 26-yard pass to a diving Stedman Bailey, setting up Tyler Bitancurt's 28-yard field goal as time expired.
West Virginia (9-3, 5-2) earned a share of the Big East crown, much like Connecticut did a year ago through the same uprights as time expired in the final game.
"There's not a lot of words you can say in that locker room to take the pain and the hurt away," USF coach Skip Holtz said. "You can't ask this team to play with any more passion, any more heart, any more togetherness. I can't ask them to put any more of their soul into this.
"I've had teams in my past with better records. I don't know that I've had a team that's taught me more about adversity and perseverance, having a positive attitude and coming back week after week after week when we've been through so many losses that take all the air out of your lungs."
The Bulls (5-7, 1-6) lost two games this season on kicks as time expired, another on a touchdown with 12 seconds left and another in overtime.
They led in the fourth quarter of four losses, three by a touchdown or more.
Their streak of bowl appearances ends at six seasons. But it looked good with nine minutes left when the Bulls took the lead before a home crowd announced at 41,743 at Raymond James Stadium.
Down 10 points late in the third, USF scored 17 straight, the last seven coming on an interception return by cornerback JaQuez Jenkins.
But West Virginia had a comeback in it as well, driving for the tying touchdown with 5:09 left before the final drives.
USF's defense controlled the game most of the way, but special teams breakdowns and red zone inefficiencies kept the Bulls from having the same advantage on the scoreboard. Daniels overcame a slow start to engineer a 76-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter. USF's defense stifled the Big East's top offense, coming up with big play after big play.
Down 27-20 with 10 minutes left, West Virginia drove 71 yards for a touchdown, helped by a 15-yard penalty when it failed on third down. The drive ended with a 5-yard touchdown run by Dustin Garrison,
USF answered right away. Lindsey Lamar's kickoff return set up USF at the West Virginia 41, but the drive ended with Daniels' fumble.
Special teams continued to hurt the Bulls, with Tavon Austin's 90-yard touchdown on a kickoff return sparking the Mountaineers after USF had pulled within 13-10 in the third quarter.
The special teams woes started much earlier as West Virginia blocked a USF punt at the Bulls 5. The defense held firm, however, and the Mountaineers had to settle for a field goal and 3-0 lead.
Daniels' early struggles peaked with a high throw that was intercepted by cornerback Pat Miller and returned 52 yards for a touchdown and a 10-0 lead.
The Bulls offense woke up, however, with an 80-yard drive that ended with Daniels' 20-yard touchdown pass to receiver Sterling Griffin, who returned after missing four games with a fractured ankle.
Greg Auman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.