TAMPA — It has been a season of steady disappointment, of frustrating finishes and increasingly difficult losses, of mounting injuries and angry fans and questions about the future of USF football.
And while all that isn't likely to change in the big picture with the outcome of tonight's season finale against Pittsburgh, USF's seniors are still hoping to end their college careers with the consolation of a home victory on the way out.
"It's a huge motivation. I don't think anyone wants to go out a so-called loser," said tight end Evan Landi, one of a handful of seniors returning from injury for their last game. "We'd love to win this game for the seniors, and to start next year on a positive path for the younger guys."
The Bulls bid farewell to 25 seniors tonight, but fans have already said early good-byes to key players such as quarterback B.J. Daniels and running back Lindsey Lamar, who have been out with injuries. Other starters have fallen into backup roles, and only one senior, defensive tackle Cory Grissom, has been able to start every game, but all have the same mentality of doing everything possible to find a happy ending to a difficult year.
"It'll be a very high level of motivation. There will be some things that happen in this game, positive things … and we'll be like, 'Dang, where has that been all year?'" senior linebacker Sam Barrington said. "It'll be a more emotional game. Guys will be into it more because it's the last game."
There could be more than seniors gone from this year's team. There is lingering uncertainty about coach Skip Holtz. While he is likely to return for 2013, there could be changes to his coaching staff, especially on defense, where three close losses came with late leads surrendered on 75-yard touchdown drives.
The continued struggles have already cost USF some of its fan base; today's actual attendance might be the lowest in the Big East era, reminiscent of the Bulls' 2004 home finale against Pittsburgh, a hurricane-delayed game that drew an announced 23,417 for a 43-14 loss to end a 4-7 season. USF's last home game, a win against Connecticut four weeks ago, had an announced attendance of 36,190, but the actual crowd was 20,605, which means as much as 43 percent of the tickets distributed weren't actually used at the game.
As driven as the senior class might be to forge one final positive memory, the motivation might be greater for the increasing number of underclassmen stepping into key roles. The returning nucleus of current freshmen and sophomores might see a turnaround in USF's future, but they want that to start tonight, as something they can give back to the outgoing seniors.
"We have to go out on a good note for them," sophomore center Austin Reiter said. "They've put all their time in for us. This is a way for us to pay it forward."
For players at least, the momentum of a season-ending win would help lift some of the negativity off the program, though they're well aware there will be no shortage of offseason motivation from a 4-8 record that fell well short of lofty expectations.
"We know what we're capable of. I think that's the biggest thing everybody's going to realize: 'Hey, when everything's cohesive and working real well, we can pull out the wins,' " Reiter said.