TAMPA ― On the most frigid game night of the year at Raymond James Stadium, USF spent the better part of 60 minutes tantalizing its mostly downtrodden partisans.
Turned out, the Bulls were only teasing them.
Which still beats tormenting them.
Thoroughly outplayed in a sloppy opening half, No. 17 Cincinnati (9-1, 6-0 American Athletic Conference) rallied from a 10-point second-half deficit for a 20-17 triumph against the Bulls (4-6, 2-4) before an announced crowd of 29,112.
Graduate-transfer kicker Sam Crosa hit a 37-yard field goal as time expired, setting off a raucous Cincy celebration. By contrast, four missed Spencer Shrader field goals conspired to thwart the Bulls’ upset attempt. The costliest: a 33-yarder that hit the right upright with 2:07 to play.
“There’s no blame for anyone," said coach Charlie Strong, who nearly broke down during his postgame opening statement. “It’s just one of those losses that’s a team loss.”
Yet on a night of cruel heartache, hope possibly surfaced for Strong and his beleaguered program.
Saturday’s performance, highlighted by the Bulls’ best defensive effort of the year and some noticeable strides by first-year starting quarterback Jordan McCloud, clearly showed a team with its share of flaws also possesses its share of fortitude.
Which is to say, nary a sign exists that USF ― one defeat from bowl ineligibility ― has mailed it in in mid-November.
“There’s a lot of fight in these guys and I think we showed that tonight,” fifth-year senior tight end Mitch Wilcox said.
“We’ve got a lot of guys that just love the university, especially our older guys," McCloud added. "We’re all trying to fight for them. We’ve got two more games, we’ve got to go get both of ‘em, get to a bowl game.”
Applying steady pressure to Bearcats quarterback Desmond Ridder, the Bulls held Cincinnati to 46 first-half yards. The guests had twice as many punts (six) as first downs during in their first scoreless opening half since a 42-0 loss at Ohio State on Sept. 7.
Meantime, a Bulls offense that had scored only 31 first-quarter points in its first nine games scored on its opening possession.
After a 6-yard completion to Eddie McDoom on third-and-4, McCloud lofted a 55-yard spiral to Randall St. Felix just as he was nailed, setting up Trevon Sands’ 4-yard scoring run.
The touchdown was only USF’s second in the opening quarter at Raymond James Stadium this season.
“We really wanted to try and start fast, come out swinging, and I think especially on the first drive we did that,” Wilcox said.
The only glaring first-half blemishes: missed Shrader field goals of 53, 50 and 43 yards; and some shoddy clock management after Kevin Kegler recovered a Ridder fumble in the red zone with 37 second to play in the half.
USF was able only to get off a 43-yard field goal (that missed) on the final play, preventing a 10-0 USF halftime lead from being larger.
“The first half was just total domination on defense,” said Strong, whose unit gave up only 278 total yards.
“You’ve got to give them credit, they did a good job of mixing it up,” Bearcats coach Luke Fickell said. “Their ability to pressure from both sides I think really put us in a bind in the first half.”
Fickell’s club, which clinched a share of the East Division crown with the victory, got on the board with a 10-play, 56-yard touchdown drive on its opening possession of the second half. But this time, McCloud (18-for-27, 267 yards, one TD) was able to counterpunch.
Nine days after surrendering nine sacks against Temple, the offensive line, missing starting left tackle Donovan Jennings (ankle), allowed only one. McCloud’s 49-yard completion to third-string tailback Kelley Joiner set up his 4-yard scoring pass to Wilcox, increasing the Bulls’ lead to 17-7 midway through the third.
The offensive line “performed good,” McCloud said. “In practice they took it personal."
Cincinnati continued to rally behind tailback Michael Warren Jr., who had 98 of his 134 rushing yards in the second half.
Warren’s 2-yard TD with 14:26 to play tied the score at 17-all. Bulls freshman Kelley Joiner (121 total yards) fumbled at midfield on the ensuing possession, but the Bearcats failed to capitalize, committing two penalties on a futile possession.
But the Bulls were equally futile from there. On their last drive, McCloud scrambled near his own goal line on third-and-10 and tossed a short throw over the middle to McDoom. The Michigan transfer then broke no fewer than four tackles and dragged a couple of Bearcats defenders before being stopped for a 41-yard gain.
A 19-yarder to Bryce Miller on third-and-4 set up Shrader’s final, frustrating try of the night. Strong said he gave no thought to going to short-range kicker Coby Weiss, who has been injured.
“We all had our arms around him," Wilcox said. "We love Spencer, he’s a great kicker. It’s unfortunate what we were going through tonight, but he’s a great kicker and he’s got a great career ahead of him.”
Contact Joey Knight at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.