TAMPA — Not that USF's football players haven't felt the wall against their backs for several losses now, but with the Bulls' losing skid at a record six games and another open weekend looming ahead, there's a real urgency to tonight's home game against Connecticut.
"I certainly don't want to go through two more weeks with that taste in your mouth," coach Skip Holtz said. "I think this team needs something positive to happen to them. They need to win that close game. They just need to win. You're working, working, working and you never see the results. At some point, you start to say, 'Wow. Remind me why we're doing this?' "
When USF (2-6, 0-4 Big East) rallied for two touchdowns in the final three minutes to steal a 32-31 victory Sept. 8 at Nevada, Holtz talked about cherishing the postgame celebration in the locker room, having seen his team lose three games on the final play in 2011, and a fourth on a touchdown with 12 seconds left. He hoped this year's team would make a habit of winning close games instead of just playing in them.
Alas, the Bulls haven't won in 56 days since, and even the Nevada win was foretelling, as the Bulls gave up 549 yards of offense. Those defensive issues had USF coaches concerned, reminding them of seven losses in their final eight games of 2011, and this was days before the current losing streak even started.
"Sometimes, they lose focus because everybody's patting them on the back," defensive backs coach Rick Smith said two days after the Nevada win. "Coach Holtz is really … today might have been our hardest practice. … They got the message. We don't want to be 2-0 and everybody asks, 'What happened?' We've been there. Last year, we beat Notre Dame and what happened? This year, we beat a good football team, at their place. We didn't play well. We weren't disciplined. We had belief and played as a team."
The Bulls had hoped to avoid continuing the losing streak into an off week last month at Temple, but a potential go-ahead field goal was blocked in the final minutes and the Owls scored a late touchdown to win by nine. Losses followed against Louisville and Syracuse, and the last, bare-minimum achievement the Bulls can aim for — making a bowl — will disappear with their next loss.
USF's seniors had hoped to go out with the program's first Big East title, and now they're left to try to avoid being the worst team in the program's 16-year history — the Bulls never have won fewer than four games in a season.
"I'm very shocked. This is not something I predicted or would have thought would ever happen," senior linebacker Sam Barrington said. "When you're in a situation like this, there's no time for sugarcoating. The best path of progress is accepting reality. … We know we're capable of winning. It's coming down to two or three plays a game that are not going our way."
USF's defense has no interceptions — every Division I-A team every year since at least 2000 has had at least one. The Bulls have recovered only five fumbles, so they have five takeaways, one year after having 26. Changing that might go a long way toward changing the result on the scoreboard, Barrington said.
"If you look at it, the defense is not gaining that many turnovers, but we're still in the game at the last minute," he said. "Imagine if we were executing and getting three or four turnovers a game. I think we'd find ourselves in a very different position."
The Bulls, for all their losses, are eight-point favorites against the Huskies (3-5, 0-3), who have struggled offensively, mustering 27 total points in a three-game losing streak. There is still optimism that the USF streak can end tonight, that those seniors' slim bowl hopes can live on, at least for two more weeks.
"You do this really for that joy in the locker room after the game," Holtz said. "You do it for the fulfillment of accomplishment. … We have not been able to experience that. And it's frustrating and it's hard. It makes everybody edgy and short and upset. It's certainly not what we want. I think it's really important that we are able to find a way to win a game this weekend, especially going into the open date, at least so everybody can take a breath. We have not been able to come up for air at all, because you're pushing so hard."
View Greg Auman's USF blog at blogs.tampabay.com/usf.