EAST HARTFORD, Conn. —USF's first four losses were all by at least 17 points, but this one, wrested away in the final second by a kick in the snowing, freezing cold of Rentschler Field, stung much more for the Bulls.
After rallying from a 13-point second-half deficit, after twice taking the lead in the fourth quarter, the Bulls saw Connecticut march 31 yards in 40 seconds, with kicker Dave Teggart hitting a 42-yard field goal as time expired for a 29-27 victory.
It was the Bulls' fifth loss in their past seven games after a 5-0 start.
"This is a lot tougher," said freshman linebacker Sam Barrington, who made his first career start in place of one of four injured starters on defense. "We played our hearts out. Sometimes you just fall short. If you execute and you have zero mistakes, you're not going to fall short."
USF (7-5, 3-4 Big East) will learn its bowl fate today, but the loss might send them back for more cold, playing Jan. 2 in the International Bowl in Toronto. It's unlikely, but the Bulls could also play in the Papajohns.com Bowl in Birmingham, or return to the St. Petersburg Bowl.
"We battled. We just came up short," coach Jim Leavitt said. "I did not think he was going to make that field goal. I thought we'd block it."
For UConn (7-5, 3-4), whose five losses were by a combined 15 points after having led in the fourth quarter in all of them, the victory was a happy end to a difficult season. Teggart, who hit the winning kick, was a roommate of cornerback Jasper Howard, who was stabbed and killed hours after a game in October.
USF had set itself up for a rare Big East road win, as quarterback B.J. Daniels finished a go-ahead drive with an 8-yard touchdown with 40 seconds left, his career-high third running score of the day. Strong running from Daniels (88 yards) and Mike Ford (20 carries, 74 yards) helped the Bulls rally from a 20-7 deficit.
Leavitt called for kicker Eric Schwartz to hit a "hard squib," low along the ground, but his kick was a line drive that speedy Jordan Todman fielded at the UConn 21 and returned to the 44. From there, Huskies quarterback Zach Frazer went 3-for-4 for 30 yards in setting up the winning kick.
"The kickoff kind of frustrated me," Leavitt said. "That might have been a difference of 10 yards maybe. Could that have been the difference in the game? Sure could have."
It wasn't the first time the defense couldn't hold a lead in the fourth quarter.
Ahead 21-20 with eight minutes to play, the Bulls let Connecticut score a touchdown, with another short kick setting the Huskies up on their 41. Eleven plays and 59 yards later, Andre Dixon's 1-yard run had UConn up 26-21.
"We have to find a way to make a stop," said defensive coordinator Joe Tresey, who didn't want to use four injured starters as an excuse. "We came here to win. It's the next man in. You've got to step up and play when it's your turn."
USF trailed 13-7 at halftime despite controlling the first-half time of possession, holding the ball for twice as much as UConn and running nearly twice as many plays.
USF came in reeling from a familiar second-half swoon, having dropped four of six games after a 5-0 start. The Bulls have struggled outdoors on the road in the Big East, falling to 3-12 in five seasons.
"It's the last game of the season, and everybody's hurt," Barrington said. "It's just a tough loss. Sometimes you have to deal with those. These build programs."
Times writer Greg Auman can be reached at email@example.com and at (813) 226-3346. Check out his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/usf and follow him at Twitter.com/gregauman.