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USF Bulls offense fails at most crucial times

TAMPA

When the game was finally done, nobody broke rank.

From the coaches to the players, everyone walking out of the USF locker room mumbled the same message about winning and losing as a unit.

That's important to know. It's admirable and it's impressive.

In this case, it is also a lie.

USF lost 6-3 to Miami on Saturday because the offense couldn't make a play. And because the head coach asked the defense to save the Bulls one too many times.

"I don't have anything negative to say about this game or our effort," linebacker Michael Lanaris said. "Everyone played their guts out."

That much is true. You could see it when the game was over, when Miami had converted a field goal on the final play of the day, and USF players were left sprawled on the field.

Quenton Washington and Kayvon Webster had collided while trying to block the field goal, and knocked each other senseless. Julius Forte was on his back in either frustration or exhaustion, or a mixture of both. Mike McFarland pounded the ground with his fist.

"Right up until the last play I thought we were going to get it done. I thought I was going to block that field goal but I got squeezed," defensive end Ryne Giddins said. "When it went through, it was just a sick feeling. A sick, sick feeling."

If ever a defense deserved more, this was the day. USF kept the Hurricanes out of the end zone on 13 different drives. It held Miami to its lowest scoring output since a game against eventual national champ Florida early in the 2008 season.

The USF defense was far from flawless on Saturday, but it was relentless. It was smart, aggressive and proud.

"We may have shut them down as well as anybody has all year but, again, we came up short," defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said. "I tell my guys all of the time, if the other team doesn't score it can't win. But, yeah, I was proud of them.

"Talking to them after the game was hard. It was really hard. There were a lot of tears in there. A lot of hurt in there."

Maybe the result was predictable. Maybe Miami was just the better team, and when the game was on the line the Hurricanes were going to prove it.

But there were moments that make you wonder if something could have been done differently. There were decisions that are worth revisiting.

When it became clear this was not going to be a high-scoring game, USF coach Skip Holtz seemed determined to play it conservatively. At times, he seemed as if he was practically waiting for overtime to arrive.

And, truth be told, that wasn't an awful strategy. His starting quarterback was on the sideline with a shoulder injury, and his offense had failed to get into the red zone the entire afternoon.

So Holtz declined to gamble drive after drive.

Three times the Bulls had fourth and 1 in the third quarter. Punt, punt, punt. Twice, they had fourth and long around midfield in the fourth quarter. Punt, punt.

Finally, USF had a fourth-and-3 play on the Miami 48 with less than six minutes remaining. One final punt.

Holtz's strategy had merit. He said his defense was playing too well to turn the ball over to Miami on a short field. That wouldn't have been fair to the defense, he said.

"I didn't feel it was the right thing to do at that time," Holtz said.

Each punt could be defended as the right decision. Taken individually, they all probably made sense at that particular point.

The problem is they all added up to critical mass. The USF defense had played well, but it had not completely shut down UM quarterback Jacory Harris.

Chances were they were eventually going to crack. And when they did, USF did not give itself a chance to get the ball back.

When it became clear a winning field goal was a possibility, the Bulls did not use any of their timeouts. Instead, they let the Hurricanes run the clock down to 2 seconds.

It was as if the Bulls had so little faith in their offense that they preferred to gamble on UM missing the field goal instead of trying for their own winning drive.

"As a defense, you want these games. You want to win 2-0," defensive end Patrick Hampton said. "We just keep getting beat on these two-minute drives, and it hurts."

From a distance, this game will look like another collapse by the USF defense. Just like the final three minutes against Rutgers, just like the final 87 seconds against Cincinnati.

Don't believe it.

The box score will show USF lost on a last-minute drive, but the defense deserved better.

USF Bulls offense fails at most crucial times 11/19/11 [Last modified: Saturday, November 19, 2011 10:56pm]

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