After two road losses took South Florida from national title contention to the cellar of the Big East Conference, the Bulls returned to Raymond James Stadium on Saturday looking for a change.
What they got was more of the same.
For the third game in a row, the Bulls overcame turnovers, mistakes and a third-quarter deficit for a chance to win on the final possession of the game. And, for the third time in a row, South Florida (6-3, 1-3 Big East) fell short, losing 38-33 to Cincinnati (7-2, 2-2 Big East) in front of a Homecoming crowd of 57,379.
“It kills you,” linebacker Ben Moffitt said. “I mean it just takes something inside of you. I’ve always wanted to be great and then we lose three games by just a couple of points. It hurts, it hurts really bad.”
Unlike last week’s game against Connecticut, in which the Bulls were down 16-0 before getting on the board, the team started off strong against the Bearcats.
On the third play of the game, Bulls cornerback Trae Williams intercepted Ben Mauk’s pass and returned it 73 yards for a touchdown. A 63-yard touchdown pass by Mauk erased the lead, but Mike Jenkins – South Florida’s other starting cornerback – responded quickly for the Bulls, returning the ensuing kickoff a school-record 100 yards to put USF back on top.
“I definitely thought we had the momentum starting off the game,” Jenkins said. “Then it changed as the game went on.”
In the final seven minutes of the first quarter, Cincinnati scored on a blocked punt return, an interception return and a 16-yard pass. When the hour-long opening quarter ended, the Bulls were down 31-14.
“It was definitely a crazy first quarter,” Moffitt said. “One of the craziest I’ve ever been involved in. I’ve never seen that before.”
With his team facing a season-high deficit of 17 points and struggling in the running game, quarterback Matt Grothe set out to bring the Bulls back. The sophomore quarterback threw for a school-record 382 yards and ran for another 75, accounting for 457 of South Florida’s 481 total offensive yards in the game.
While Grothe produced 95 percent of the South Florida’s offense against the Bearcats, his four interceptions and one fumble also gave him a hand in five of the team’s eight turnovers.
“You just can’t turn the ball over that many times and expect to win,” coach Jim Leavitt said. “It’s amazing that we were in it after all the turnovers that we had.”
The Bulls were able to stay in the game thanks to a strong performance from their defense, which allowed only one touchdown in the final three quarters of play.
Defensive end George Selvie had four tackles for a loss in the game, raising his season total to 27.5 and breaking the Big East Conference record of 26, set by Pittsburgh’s Bryan Knight in 2000.
Despite allowing 31 points in the first quarter and turning the ball over a school-record eight times against the Bearcats, the Bulls found themselves in the position to change a game’s outcome on their final possession for the third week in row.
A failed fake field attempt on Cincinnati’s final drive of the game gave the Bulls the ball with less than 30 seconds left in the game and the chance to score the go-ahead touchdown.
“I told our guys we would have 30 seconds left. I was off, it was 29,” Leavitt said. “Not only did we have 29 seconds but (we had) the ball at midfield. I really thought we were going to win the game.”
After completing passes of 20 and 23 yards to move the Bulls down to Cincinnati’s 18-yard line, Grothe found receiver Carlton Mitchell in the corner of the end zone. Despite a tremendous effort, Mitchell failed to catch the pass as the ball was tipped off his fingertips. With two seconds on the clock, Grothe took the final snap of the game, rolled out to his left and fired a pass at Jessie Hester Jr. in the end zone.
Hester, blanketed by a defender, couldn’t make the catch and sat on the field for several moments after the play as an angry crowd called for a pass interference flag that would never come.
“I thought Jessie had it for sure,” Leavitt said. “There was a lot of stuff going on (in the back of the end zone). It seems like it wasn’t really a clean play. I’m not right on the spot, I don’t know. My heart will break if I look at this play and there’s interference.”
Despite the controversial call, Leavitt was quick to insist that there were no excuses to be made for the loss and, despite falling from No. 2 to unranked (South Florida received 11 votes in this week’s AP Poll) in three games, the coach was impressed with his team’s determination.
“(There are) no excuses at all,” Leavitt said. “We didn’t play well enough to win. But I love the way they battled. I love their heart, I love their fight and I love everything about them.”