CINCINNATI — On a frigid night when adversity's biting gusts could have chilled USF to the bone, at least credit the Bulls for not shivering.
With starting quarterback Blake Barnett (shoulder soreness) not suited up, the kickoff temperature (28 degrees) the lowest ever registered in a USF game, and the Bulls riding a two-game skid, Saturday's matchup with No. 25 Cincinnati came with a mostly grim forecast.
USF answered with a mostly gritty performance. Alas, the Bulls were unable to conquer the collection of elements (natural and otherwise) as Cincy rallied in the second half for a 35-23 triumph before an announced Nippert Stadium crowd of 29,310.
"The guys played well the first half, then did not put it together in the second half," said Bulls coach Charlie Strong, whose team went to halftime with a 16-14 lead.
"We can't give up three scores in the third quarter, especially when you're on the road. And you've got to be able to sustain drives there on offense, which we weren't able to do."
The loss officially eliminates USF (7-3, 3-3) from contention in the American Athletic Conference's East Division and saddles the program with its first three-game losing streak since 2015.
But the Bulls provided periodic hope on a night that didn't begin with much.
Third-year sophomore Chris Oladokun, a Sickles High alumnus with five passing attempts this season, started in Barnett's place and combined with fourth-year junior Brett Kean to go 8-for-18 for 155 yards in the first half.
"We just kept watching (Barnett) during the week of practice and just figured he'd get better," Strong said. "And then by Friday we had to make a decision."
Oladokun played the entire second half, finishing with respectable passing numbers (10-for-22, 165 yards, two touchdowns) in his first career start. With Cincinnati consistently loading the box, Strong said they stuck with Oladokun because of his running ability.
"We thought maybe with the pressure they were bringing we could outrun them," he said.
But that never materialized for USF, which finished with nearly as many penalty yards (80) as rushing yards (81). It was the first time the Bulls have been held to fewer than 100 rushing yards this season.
"You've got to play physical at the point of attack," Strong said, "and we didn't play physical at all."
But an evening that ended with a swoon commenced with a spark.
Oladokun's first pass of the night was a downfield fling to senior Ryeshene Bronson, running on a streak route to the right side. Bronson, in single coverage, snagged the pass with his left hand and broke free for a 72-yard touchdown. Coby Weiss' point-after attempt was blocked.
"We knew we were gonna get a one-high look from them pretty much all night," Oladokun said. "So 'Shene just being one of those athletic dudes, made a great play for me and took it the distance."
Kean entered in the second quarter, and promptly completed three consecutive passes to tight end Mitch Wilcox, the third for a 38-yard touchdown in which Wilcox managed to get past his defender.
"We were betting on our guys calling that play," Wilcox said. "And he was just grabbing, trying to hold on to me for dear life."
Meantime, the Bulls' maligned defense held Cincinnati to 164 yards in the first half. The Bearcats' two first-half touchdowns, in fact, came when the Bulls twice gave them a short field.
But on Cincinnati's first possession of the second half, tailback Michael Warren II bounced outside on third and 1, broke a tackle at the line of scrimmage and dashed for a 57-yard touchdown.
A critical special-teams blunder — on a night rife with them — followed, when veteran Chris Barr was flagged for catching interference on a Bulls punt. A pass-interference penalty on Mike Hampton followed. Four plays later, Warren scored from 1 yard as a wildcat QB, giving the hosts a 28-16 lead.
The Bulls answered with a 10-play, 73-yard drive. A 2-yard surge by Jordan Cronkrite on fourth and 2 at the Bearcats 25 was followed by Oladokun's touchdown strike to Tyre McCants in the left corner of the end zone the next play.
Cincinnati answered with a four-play, 77-yard touchdown drive, capped by Warren's 1-yard scoring run. Warren finished with 151 yards and three touchdowns on 28 carries, eclipsing the 1,000-yard mark for the season in the process.
By contrast, the Bulls' offense wasn't nearly as steady. Eight of its last nine drives ended with punts.
"I thought (Oladokun) played well, we've just got to catch the football," Strong said. "We had way too many drops by our wide receivers."
Contact Joey Knight at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.