TAMPA — If ever 17th-ranked USF needed a dazzling effort in all three phases, it was Saturday. With the initial College Football Playoff rankings three days from release, style points and across-the-board dominance mattered.
But on a dreary, drizzling afternoon against Houston, the Bulls couldn't flourish.
Or even finish.
Sophomore backup quarterback D'Eriq King's 20-yard scoring run with 11 seconds remaining clinched Houston's 28-24 upset of the Bulls (7-1, 4-1 American Athletic Conference) before an announced Raymond James Stadium crowd of 32,316.
Scoreless at halftime, the Cougars (5-3, 3-2) scored three touchdowns in the final 18 minutes. King set up his winning run five plays earlier with a 30-yard pass on fourth and 24 to 6-foot-2 sophomore Courtney Lark, who appeared to snag the pass over at least two Bulls defenders.
"Just go up and knock it down," Bulls coach Charlie Strong said.
"In that second half, we lost our edge," middle linebacker Auggie Sanchez added.
They lost more than that. The Bulls' 12-game win streak — longest in Division I-A — is over. So is their national-record string of games with at least 30 points (ending at 24). UCF now owns the nation's longest 30-point streak, at seven contests.
Still in sight is the AAC's East Division title and a New Year's Six bowl game, though one more loss vanquishes those aspirations.
"I told 'em if this is the group of guys I know, then we'll be back," Sanchez said, referring to his postgame address to his peers.
"And I told 'em our goal at the beginning of the season wasn't to go undefeated, it was to win the conference championship. And that's still in place right now. We control our own destiny in that situation."
But a few things are in need of repair.
The Bulls' power-based scheme, showing little variety beyond the halfback dive, managed a season-low 137 yards against the Cougars, who mostly swarmed the line of scrimmage and held quarterback Quinton Flowers to 7 rushing yards.
In the first quarter, senior Darius Tice was stuffed on fourth and 1 from the Cougars 11. On their final scoring drive, ending with Emilio Nadelman's 30-yard field goal with 1:46 to play, the Bulls had first and 15 at Houston's 24 but opted for three consecutive run plays that netted 11 yards.
"They loaded the box," Strong said. "So … whatever they give you, you've got to take."
Defensively, USF suffered its second late meltdown in as many games.
Houston's stunning rally, behind a sophomore who hadn't played extensively behind center since high school, came seven days after the Bulls let Tulane score three touchdowns in the final 17 minutes of a 34-28 squeaker.
"We could've did just a little bit more," said senior defensive tackle Deadrin Senat, who sacked King one play before his fourth-down heave to Lark. "I myself could've done just a little bit more, and I know everybody on this defense is feeling the same way."
King, used only in wildcat-type situations prior to Saturday, totaled 220 yards and accounted for three touchdowns but struggled initially after replacing starter Kyle Postma.
The Bulls shut out the Cougars and held them to 82 total yards in the first half but watched them finish with 255 rushing yards. King ran for 83, while third-string tailback Mulbah Car, a burly 210-pound sophomore, gained 137 on 18 carries.
King's 3-yard scoring run with 6:20 to go — capping a 10-play drive — tied the score at 21. USF responded with a 10-play drive of its own, ending with Nadelman's field goal. But Cougars senior Brandon McDowell returned the ensuing kick 50 yards.
"I thought I had two guys that could've gone in there and just knifed it and made a play," Strong said. "They stayed outside and (McDowell) ended up seaming us."
But even after that play, there was a drive that got to fourth and 24.
"One play's all we needed," Strong said. "Just one."
Alas, they couldn't finish.
At least they're not finished. Not yet, anyway.
"It's okay," said Flowers, whose 332 total yards pushed him past 10,000 for his career. "At the end of the day, everything is still in front of us."
Contact Joey Knight at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.