TAMPA — This was one night USF seemed to have fate in its huddle. The Bulls seniors were riding emotion while SMU was saddled with a backup quarterback. For a spell, Tampa's other two-win squad appeared destined for a momentum swing.
Just one problem: The penalties were mounting.
On a night when the Bulls' seniors were recognized and one (Ryne Giddins) got engaged, USF had too many self-inflicted mistakes. The result was a 16-6 loss to SMU before a season low (per Tampa Sports Authority) of 14,236.
"I've said it two or three weeks now, we can't keep beating ourselves," said coach Willie Taggart, whose team is averaging 13.7 penalties over its past three games. "We get something going and then we'll revert back to some old things after a big play or after we do something, shoot ourselves in the foot again. It killed us."
Only Chris Dunkley's 50-yard punt return with 2:24 to play prevented USF's first scoreless home game ever, and its first shutout since a 31-0 loss in 2009 at Rutgers.
Moments before the return, the offense provided a microcosm of this maddening season.
A first and goal from the 2 was set up when freshman Mike White (19-for-34, 217 yards, two interceptions) found Andre Davis for a 73-yard pass. But three consecutive penalties pushed the Bulls back to the 17.
Four White incompletions later, the Mustangs had the ball and USF (259 total yards) had been blanked by the nation's 98th-ranked defense. The Bulls (2-8, 2-4 American Athletic Conference) finished with 13 penalties for 107 yards.
"We're the type of offense that can't play from behind and (Taggart) stresses that," Davis said. "To get down there in the red zone and have penalties, it's heartbreaking, because we know we should've turned that into points."
USF, using five and six defensive backs, contained a ball-control passing attack. SMU (5-5, 4-2) had 280 yards, more than 200 below its average.
"I tell you what's frustrating is, our defense played outstanding," Taggart said.
By halftime, Mustangs quarterback Garrett Gilbert, the nation's total offense leader (405.7 ypg) coming in, had left after sliding awkwardly on a run and injuring his left knee.
But USF, down 3-0 at that point, couldn't capitalize.
The Bulls were whistled for holding twice on their second drive, the first negating an 80-yard off-tackle burst by Marcus Shaw. On their third drive, center Austin Reiter was called for a false start on third and 7.
"It's extremely frustrating," Reiter said.
On SMU's opening drive of the second half, defensive tackle Luke Sager was whistled for roughing SMU backup Neal Burcham; SMU scored nine plays later for a 9-0 lead. The Mustangs made it 16-0 when Burcham hit Der'rikk Thompson on fourth and 1 for a 37-yard touchdown.
To that point, SMU had been whistled for no penalties. It finished with one.
"As a defense, we had some penalties too like holds, and we didn't get those calls, so I'm a little frustrated about that," defensive end Aaron Lynch said. "But them giving calls to the other team, it is what it is."
Joey Knight can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @TBTimes_Bulls.