CINCINNATI — Another year, another midseason free fall for USF.
The soon-to-be-unranked Bulls lost for the third time in four games, giving up big plays and failing in the red zone in another Thursday night loss, 24-10 to unranked Cincinnati.
"It's miserable. It's almost like last year all over again," center Jake Griffin said. "I hope for the university they never schedule another (Thursday game)."
Down 14 in the fourth quarter, USF twice drove inside the Cincinnati 10 but both times came away empty. With eight minutes left, the Bulls drove to the 2 then self-destructed with a false start, two 1-yard runs and two bad incompletions from Matt Grothe to come away empty.
Three minutes later, the Bulls did the same thing, driving to the 8 then missing again on fourth down.
"When we had the ball inside the 10, not to convert two times, there's no excuse for that," USF coach Jim Leavitt said.
"We've got to be able to score points there."
The No. 24 Bulls (6-3, 1-3 Big East) were dominated before a crowd of 31,175 at a stadium in which Cincinnati has owned them, winning two previous meetings by a combined 39 points.
Grothe threw a season-high three interceptions while Cincinnati's Tony Pike, who played with a broken left (nonpassing) forearm, was superb, throwing for 281 yards and two touchdowns.
"I thought Matt tried too hard on some of those plays," Leavitt said.
"We gave up too many long pass plays. They made great catches. We didn't. We dropped too many balls."
A year ago, USF opened the season 6-0 and rose to No. 2 in the polls before dropping three straight, the last against Cincinnati. This season, the Bulls opened 5-0, and again, Cincinnati (6-2, 2-1) delivered the third loss.
"It's getting real old. We start out real good at the beginning of the season then we get into Big East play and start losing games," defensive end George Selvie said. "We just can't have that."
It is USF's third straight loss on a Thursday night ESPN broadcast after ones to Rutgers last season and to Pittsburgh four weeks ago. Thursday's loss was USF's third this season to an unranked opponent and second in five days, after one Saturday at Louisville.
The Bulls, once hopeful of a league championship and BCS berth, now are likely headed to the inaugural St. Petersburg Bowl on Dec. 20.
Pike threw for 227 yards in the first half, completing 14 of 19 passes. Twice, the Bearcats completed deep passes on plays in which the Bulls were flagged for pass interference.
The biggest play of the half was an interception that Cincinnati's Mike Mickens returned 58 yards to the USF 14, setting up John Goebel's 2-yard touchdown.
USF answered with Grothe finding Carlton Mitchell for a 47-yard juggling catch and Mo Plancher rushing 32 yards to set up his 1-yard touchdown.
By halftime, USF trailed 17-7 and had given up 281 yards of offense.
The defense buckled down in the third quarter, forcing three-and-outs on Cincinnati's first three possessions. But USF's offense could muster only a 49-yard Maikon Bonani field goal in the second half.
The Bulls now have 16 days before they play again, at home against Rutgers on Nov. 15. They need to win their remaining three games to avoid a losing record in conference play for the first time since joining the Big East in 2005.
"We're going to get this thing fixed. I guarantee this season will not go down the drain," linebacker Tyrone McKenzie said. "We will come together as a team, and we will finish this thing strong."