Challenged to find answers for how opposing offenses have consistently made plays late during a four-game losing streak, USF's players and coaches have often found themselves at a loss.
"I can't put words on it," senior safety Jerrell Young said. "To hold them to three, 10 points the whole game, then the last drive they score, it's tough. When they need to do it, they make plays. They do what they need to do to win."
What's confounding is that USF entered Thursday leading Division I-A averaging nine tackles for loss per game — 72 over eight games — but that consistent ability to get into backfields hasn't translated to success on the scoreboard.
"We're doing some good things, but we're not satisfied. We need to keep progressing," said linebacker Sam Barrington, who has 51/2 tackles for loss among his 50 tackles this season.
The Bulls play tonight at Syracuse, hoping to get back on track after losing leads in the final 90 seconds of their past two losses. USF led Cincinnati by 10 points in the fourth before giving up 20 in the quarter and losing 37-34, and Rutgers by 14 with less than eight minutes remaining before losing in overtime 20-17.
If USF is to end its losing streak, its defense must sustain its strong play from first down through third, from the first quarter through the fourth.
USF's leader in tackles for loss, sophomore end Ryne Giddins with 10, has recorded his best numbers during the first half. Against Rutgers he made eight of his 11 tackles before halftime. Against Connecticut, all 11 of his tackles came during the first half.
"It's (similar) in practice," Giddins said. "If we go 24 periods, the first 10 I'm on fire, the next 10 I'm starting to slow down. I've got to pick the other 10 periods up so that leads over to the games.
"First half, I'm going to do good. Second half, I'm going to do good. I hate coming out. But at the same time, I have to let Claude Davis or another defensive (lineman) get in and make plays because they're just as good."
Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said his quandary is whether to take out starters who are playing at a high level early and hope they will save energy for big plays late in the game.
"It's a matter of rolling them and keeping them fresh," Snyder said. "The hard part is when you're on the sideline with these guys. You look at them, and they're frothing at the mouth. They don't want to come out. It's hard to pull them out because you don't want to lose their swagger."
Opponents have consistently dug themselves out of holes created by USF's penchant for tackles in the backfield. Consider Rutgers' final drive on Saturday. Twice, linebacker DeDe Lattimore dropped quarterback Chas Dodd for a sack only to see Rutgers get a first down. The play before the tying touchdown, a chop block penalty, backed Rutgers up 15 yards. But the Knights scored on a 34-yard pass to tie the score.
"Every phase of the team needs to look at themselves with missed opportunities and what we can do to get better," Bulls coach Skip Holtz said. "How can we make up this one play on defense ... on offense and special teams? We just have to get some things cleaned up."
Greg Auman can be reached at email@example.com.