Another year, another midseason free fall for USF.
The soon-to-be-unranked Bulls lost for the third time in four games, struggling on both sides of the ball in another Thursday night loss, 24-10 to unranked Cincinnati.
The No. 24 Bulls (6-3, 1-3 Big East) were dominated in a stadium in which Cincinnati has owned them, winning two previous meetings by a combined 39 points.
USF's Matt Grothe threw three interceptions while Cincinnati's Tony Pike, who played with a broken left (nonpassing) forearm, was superb, throwing for 281 yards and two touchdowns.
Down 14 in the fourth quarter, USF drove to the Cincinnati 2 then self-destructed. First a false start then two 1-yard runs and two incompletions from Grothe to come away empty with eight minutes left.
Three minutes later, the Bulls did the same thing, driving to the Cincinnati 8 then missing on fourth down.
A year ago, USF opened the season 6-0 and rose to No. 2 in the polls before dropping three straight, the last against Cincinnati. This season, the Bulls opened 5-0, and again, Cincinnati (6-2, 2-1) delivered the third loss.
It's USF's third straight loss on a Thursday night ESPN broadcast following ones to Rutgers last season and to Pittsburgh four weeks ago. Thursday's loss was USF's third this season to an unranked opponent and its second in five days, including Saturday at Louisville.
The Bulls, once hopeful of a league championship and a BCS berth, now likely are headed to the inaugural St. Petersburg Bowl on Dec. 20.
Pike threw for 227 yards in the first half, completing 14 of 19 passes. Twice, the Bearcats completed deep passes on plays in which the Bulls were flagged for pass interference.
The biggest play of the half was an interception that Mike Mickens returned 58 yards to the USF 14, setting up John Goebel's 2-yard touchdown run. Mickens intercepted a Grothe pass in last year's game and returned it 79 yards for a touchdown.
USF answered with Grothe finding receiver Carlton Mitchell for a 47-yard juggling catch. Mo Plancher then rushed 32 yards to set up his 1-yard touchdown run.
The tie didn't last long as Cincinnati got a 48-yard pass to Mardy Gilyard to set up a field goal.
On their next drive, the Bearcats went 91 yards in 12 plays with Gilyard scoring on a 26-yard reception for a 17-7 lead.
USF's defense didn't force a punt in the first half and allowed Cincinnati 281 yards of offense, 13 more than it was allowing per game coming in.
The Bearcats outgained the Bulls 194-47 in the second quarter but could extend their lead by only seven points because of two turnovers.
USF's defense buckled down in the third quarter, forcing three-and-outs on Cincinnati's first three possessions. But USF's offense mustered only 55 yards of offense in the quarter with Grothe's third interception coming on a pass bobbled by tight end Cedric Hill.
USF, playing without running backs Mike Ford and Jamar Taylor due to ankle injuries, still worked hard to establish its running game behind Plancher and Ben Williams.
The two combined for 98 yards on 14 carries in the first half, this after the Bulls totaled a record-low 8 on Saturday at Louisville.
The Bulls have 16 days before they play again, a home game against Rutgers on Nov. 15.
After two road games in less than a week, they won't travel again for six weeks, for their season finale at West Virginia on Dec. 6.
They'll need to win their remaining three games to avoid a losing record in conference play for the first time since joining the Big East in 2005.
Not a fun stay
Among schools USF has visited more than once, Cincinnati remains one of three where the Bulls haven't won:
Oct. 22, 2006 23-6
Nov. 20, 2004 45-23
Oct. 25, 2008 24-20
Nov. 18, 2006 31-8
Oct. 22, 2004 41-9
Oct. 25, 2003 27-6
Oct. 7, 2000 41-7