TAMPA — The boos really didn't come until the fourth quarter on Saturday, when USF coach Skip Holtz, trailing 27-0 and nearing the end of the worst season in the program's history, called for his field goal unit on fourth and goal at the Pittsburgh 8.
Maikon Bonani's 26-yard field goal was good and helped the Bulls avoid the shutout in a 27-3 loss. But the smallest crowd in USF's season — 18,841 in the seats — made its frustration apparent in a familiar theme: too little, too late.
For the third game in a row, USF's offense struggled to move the ball — let alone score — without quarterback B.J. Daniels. The Bulls finished with 117 yards of offense, resetting the all-time low over the program's 16 seasons.
The collapse, outscored 94-22 over the final three losses, completes the Bulls' worst season — a 3-9 record and second straight 1-6 mark in Big East play to finish alone at the bottom of the standings.
The question now is if the downward spiral is bad enough to cause USF's administration to fire Holtz, which would require a buyout of $2.5 million over the five years remaining on his contract.
"I'd certainly like to be (back)," Holtz said. "There's been a lot of hard work that has gone into this; through players, coaches. There's a lot of underclassmen on that field … a lot of young talent on the field. I understand the hardened position we've put a lot of people in with the record that we have. I understand the nature of this business is to win games."
Holtz said he has not been told by athletic director Doug Woolard about his future, and he expects to meet with Woolard today to evaluate the season and his future. He acknowledged changes to his coaching staff also would be discussed. Woolard, in the room for Holtz's comments, was not available for comment.
"We've worked hard for the last three years to build this program. It's just really frustrating that we've been through the type of season we went through," Holtz said. "I'd certainly like to be (back).
"I would like to see these young players develop into what I know they can become. I would like to keep fighting."
There were more boos as Holtz ran off the field, head down as he entered the tunnel.
"We're all frustrated. I understand their frustrations," he said. "You know what? I'm with you. I'm booing me, too, right now."
Injuries have hurt USF's offense down the stretch, but the game showed many of the flaws that have haunted it all season. The defense continued an inability to force turnovers — finishing the season with two interceptions.
All five of Pitt's five scoring drives were 50 yards or fewer, taking advantage of short fields created by turnovers and special teams woes. Victor Marc opted not to field two punts that set USF up at its 2, not making things any easier for quarterback Matt Floyd, who had turnovers on USF's first three drives.
Floyd finished 12-for-25 for just 93 yards while rushing for minus-9. He now enters the spring as USF's quarterback to beat for 2013 but has shown little in his 2012 audition, leading it to a single touchdown drive over his 11 quarters running the offense. He said for all their struggles, the returning players want Holtz back as their coach.
"Coach Holtz is an amazing coach and an even better guy," Floyd said. "Personally, I would love for him to be back. I don't want to play for anybody else. I feel that's the way this football team is, too. Coach Holtz is our head coach, and that's what we want it to be."
Holtz has lost 14 of his past 16 Big East games, finishing this season with the worst record in school history and missing a bowl for the second year in a row after the Bulls had gone to bowls in six straight seasons.
The final four games were the lowest-scoring four-game stretch in school history. The 35 points were 15 fewer than the next lowest, set in 2008.
"A very frustrating night, a very frustrating year," Holtz said. "Disheartening for the seniors, disheartening because I also talked about how important it was for the underclassmen.
"It's frustrating because you certainly wanted to send the seniors out the right way because of the commitments they made to this program."
Greg Auman can be reached at [email protected]