Kentucky's air attack and big turnovers stave off the Bulls' upset bid 27-9.
The good news for South Florida: It wasn't nearly as lopsided a game as some had predicted.
The bad news: The Bulls came here Saturday afternoon with high hopes of showing they are ready for the prime time of Division I-A football, but ultimately made too many mistakes and let too many opportunities slip by.
The Bulls defense held Kentucky's high-powered offense in check for most of the first half, but USF's offense was unable to match the effort as Kentucky won 27-9 in front of 63,821 at Commonwealth Stadium. Kentucky outgained USF 527-215.
The fact that South Florida, in the program's fourth year, stayed within 18 points of an established Southeastern Conference team was of little consolation to coach Jim Leavitt and his players. They didn't make the trip for a moral victory.
"We didn't go into this game for any other reason than to beat Kentucky," Leavitt said. "And that's what we didn't get done, bottom line."
For the offense, it was a struggle from the start. On the Bulls' opening play, under pressure from linebacker Marlon McCree, quarterback Marquel Blackwell was intercepted by safety Anthony Wadja, who returned it 20 yards.
"I look at that first play as, I should probably eat the ball, but I made a bad decision," said Blackwell, who was 12 of 24 for 81 yards and one interception. "I tried to do my best, but I didn't get it done."
As it turned out, the damage was minimal. Kentucky mounted a nine-play, 53-yard drive that ended with Seth Hanson's 24-yard field goal with 9:33 left.
For the Bulls, the problem in the first half was simple: The offense spent too much time on the sideline.
USF had the ball barely nine minutes (9:02) to 20:58 for Kentucky. The Bulls got just three first downs in the half to 18 for UK, and USF had 12 carries for minus-1 yard. For the game, Blackwell was sacked six times for 52 yards.
"We came out in the first quarter and we were too emotional, too hyped," USF offensive coordinator Mike Canales said. "We were making mental mistakes. You can't make mistakes against good teams, that's what it comes down to."
Remarkably, South Florida was very much in the game with three minutes left in the first half. Until a crucial mistake.
A 26-yard field goal with 3:50 left in the first quarter and a 3-yard pass from quarterback Jared Lorenzen to Quintin McCord had given the Wildcats a 13-0 lead.
But with 2:58 left in the half DeAndrew Rubin had a 26-yard punt return to the UK 38. That set up a drive that took the Bulls to the 3-yard line.
On second and goal, Otis Dixon fumbled as he struggled to get into the end zone and UK recovered, ending an eight-play drive with 1:15 left.
"I was giving my full effort trying to get into the end zone and unfortunately I fumbled," Dixon said. "I was going 100 mph trying to help my teammates"
With 9:27 left in the third quarter, Lorenzen's 19-yard pass to Derek Abney gave the Wildcats a 20-0 lead. The Wildcats' final score was a 27-yard pass from Lorenzen to Abney with 11:36 left.
Trailing 27-3 in the fourth quarter, South Florida scored on a 28-yard scamper by Rafael Williams with 10:48 left. A 42-yard run by Blackwell on the previous play set up the score.
The Bulls' other score was a 38-yard field goal by Bill Gramatica with 14:55 left.
Leavitt said last week the Bulls wouldn't be able to stop the 6-foot-4, 275-pound Lorenzen. They just hoped to contain him.
For a while they did, holding Lorenzen to one touchdown pass, despite allowing him to throw for 201 yards in the first half. But the defense couldn't hold forever because of Kentucky's time of possession (33:15 for the game). The Bulls defensive players refused to make excuses.
"It took a huge effect, but we run every Monday and Tuesday much harder than that," said defensive back Anthony Henry, who intercepted a Lorenzen pass early in the fourth quarter. "We were tired at times, but we still should have won the ballgame."
Lorenzen set passing records for a USF opponent: 57 attempts, 30 receptions and 382 yards. It wasn't just Lorenzen who had a good offensive showing. Chad Scott, a freshman from Plant City, rushed for 106 yards on 14 carries for the Wildcats.
Leavitt said he wasn't discouraged, but he was disappointed.
"We're not good enough, obviously," Leavitt said. "We got beat by a better team. That's all there is to it. We've got a ways to go."