HOUSTON — Give USF this much: On a night nationally noted for meandering from house to house, the Bulls approached victory's doorstep, even knocking a time or two.
Yet they were turned away by a few Oct. 31 demons — namely a porous secondary, feeble tackling and a slew of ill-timed penalties — in the cavernous confines of Reliant Stadium.
Squandering a sparkling debut by freshman quarterback Mike White and kicker Marvin Kloss' latest career night, the Bulls surrendered a string of early big plays and were thwarted by a whistle on what would have been a late go-ahead touchdown.
The result was a 35-23 defeat before a sparse Reliant Stadium crowd of 22,707.
"It was the first time all year that we played that well," Bulls coach Willie Taggart said. "To be down like we were and to come back and lose the game, it's tough."
Connecting with a smorgasbord of receivers all night, White cut USF's deficit to 28-23 with a 14-play, 75-yard second-half drive that spanned 7:09.
It ended with his 2-yard lob pass to 6-foot-5 tight end Mike McFarland in the left corner of the end zone with 11:50 to go.
The Bulls' ensuing possession was thwarted by a sack and two penalties. New life was granted when Mark Joyce forced Houston returner Damian Payne to fumble Mattias Ciabatti's punt and Fidel Montgomery recovered with 5:42 to play.
Three plays later, junior Andre Davis (nine catches, 134 yards) appeared to haul in White's third-and-10 fade pass near the right corner of the end zone. Officials, however, flagged Davis for pass interference.
A play later, on third and 25 from Houston's 42, White was sacked by defensive end Tyus Bowser and fumbled. Defensive lineman Jeremiah Farley recovered for Houston at midfield.
"I saw a catch for a touchdown," Taggart said of Davis' would-be go-ahead reception.
"I thought I went up and made a good play," Davis added. "It was good protection, a good throw. I mean, the referees obviously saw the play different, and they called me for a pass interference."
The flag was among a season-high 19 thrown against the Bulls (2-6, 2-2 American Athletic Conference). It was the most penalties by a team in a Division I-A game this season, according to ESPN Stats and Information.
"That's the first time where we've had that many penalties," Taggart said. "I wouldn't say it's because our football team is undisciplined, but …you just can't have it."
When not vexed by whistles, USF was exorcising its most prominent statistical ghoul of the year, behind a rookie QB. White finished with 26 completions on 41 attempts for 311 yards — all USF season-highs.
"Special kid, man," Davis said. "He does what he does. He's a great quarterback, smart quarterback. One day this week I caught him up in the facility, he was up there until 11 getting better for football, for this game."
White's 8-yard touchdown to McFarland early in the second — the first college scoring pass and catch for both — ended USF's streak of quarters without an offensive TD at 13. For the game, White hooked up with 10 different receivers. "Guys played for him," Taggart said. "Guys made those catches; we had some drops the week before. … He put it in there where only our receivers could catch it at times."
Yet he couldn't quite stand throw-to-throw with fellow freshman John O'Korn (22-for-27, 263 yards, three TDs), at least initially.
By the end of the third, Houston (7-1, 4-0) had scored TDs on drives of four, three and two plays, mounting a 28-16 lead.
The hosts sealed things with Kenneth Farrow's 5-yard scoring run with 1:40 to go.
"We were terrible tackling today," Taggart said.
Slightly sharper than O'Korn was Kloss. The fourth-year junior nailed field goals of 39, 50 and 49 yards to extend his streak to 13, establishing a program record.