CINCINNATI — Remember when there seemed to be nothing more difficult for USF fans than the close, last-minute defeats that piled up into a six-game losing streak earlier this season?
The Bulls now offer an alternative, with a second straight blowout loss Friday night, struggling on offense in third-string quarterback Matt Floyd's first career start. A week after a 40-9 rout at Miami, the Bulls showed little spark in a 27-10 loss at Cincinnati, becoming the first USF team with eight losses in a season in the program's 16-year history.
"There were a lot of mistakes made, and there really weren't a lot of plays made tonight," coach Skip Holtz said. "I thought the young quarterback stood in there and showed an awful lot of poise, an awful lot of toughness. I was really proud of the way he competed. We certainly, in the last two weeks, have not done a lot to help him on the perimeter."
The mounting losses only add to the public criticism of Holtz, who has lost 13 of his past 15 Big East games in his three seasons; all signs point to him returning to try to turn things around in 2013.
USF (3-8, 1-5 Big East) barely avoided the lowest-scoring three-game stretch in its history — 32 points, better only than the 23 in the final three games of 2005. The Bulls had gone more than 10 quarters without a touchdown, showing how much they miss senior quarterback B.J. Daniels, who was out most of that span with a season-ending leg injury. Demetris Murray ended the drought with a 5-yard run midway through the fourth quarter Friday.
"It's part of being young in a lot of respects," Holtz said of the lopsided losses. "You're still looking at a lot of youth out there on the football field. I'm certainly not making that as an excuse. We expect them to go out and compete. We talked about a lot of guys having to step up with the productivity of B.J. out of the lineup. I don't think that has been the case. … We're not helping (Floyd) a lot."
USF's defense, which struggled against the pass at Miami, kept the game reasonably close into the third — the Bulls had the ball inside the Cincinnati 10, in position to get within a touchdown of the lead. But Holtz settled for a field goal, then the defense stopped stopping the Bearcats (8-3, 3-2), who pulled away in their home finale before a crowd of 21,171 at Nippert Stadium.
The Bulls hurt themselves with fumbles — officially a school-record seven, though they only lost two. Four came from Floyd, mostly on bad exchanges on snaps.
Cincinnati recovered Murray's fumble at the USF 19 in the first quarter, and senior quarterback Brendon Kay, who improved to 2-1 since taking over as the starter, scrambled 18 yards for a 7-0 lead.
USF's offense couldn't muster any sustained drives, but its defense kept it close until an 81-yard touchdown drive, capped by a 3-yard touchdown from Kay to tight end Travis Kelce with 2:58 left in the half, gave the Bearcats a 13-0 lead.
The Bulls offense started clicking in the third quarter, but a drive stalled inside the Cincinnati 10. Facing fourth and 2 at the Bearcats 7, Holtz settled for Maikon Bonani's 25-yard field goal.
For the second week in a row, Floyd struggled early, completing 5-of-15 in the first half for 47 yards. The redshirt freshman had better success in the second half, but the game was out of reach.
"It felt really good," Floyd said of the long-awaited touchdown. "It just felt nice to get back in the end zone."
The Bulls have dropped eight of nine. No USF team has had more than seven losses, and the Bulls still have a home finale against Pittsburgh (4-6, 1-4) next weekend.