As the third quarter was drawing to a close Saturday night at Raymond James Stadium, USF was in unfamiliar territory: leading No. 19 East Carolina, 17-14.
The Bulls had a first down at the ECU 35-yard line, with 21,750 fans and momentum on their side. It was the Bulls’ most highly attended game of the season.
But after two plays and three penalties, the Bulls were faced with a third down, 30 yards standing between them and the first down marker. Sophomore quarterback Mike White ended the drive with a pass that was intercepted at the 14-yard line.
ECU would go on to score two more touchdowns for a 28-17 comeback win.
“Obviously when you have the ball in field goal range with a kicker like Marvin, you want to keep it there,” White said. “And when we shoot ourselves in the foot and push ourselves back, it hurts.”
After leading 17-7 at halftime, USF fell victim to a poor second half against a ranked team for the second consecutive game.
“I think it was like a trickle-down effect with the penalties and we just lost focus,” coach Willie Taggart said. “We didn’t execute like we did in the first half and then we panicked.”
USF was unable to score in the second half, including a missed 28-yard field goal from the sure-footed Kloss that more than likely ended his campaign for the Lou Groza Award.
Over the previous bye week, Taggart said he had referees at practice to make the team play more-disciplined football. However, those practices didn’t translate onto the field against ECU.
The Bulls were penalized five times for 40 yards in the second half, with three of those penalties coming on third down.
“I think, in the second half we just shot ourselves in the foot,” White said. “We were moving the ball the entire half; we just couldn’t finish.”
Senior receiver Andre Davis also attributed the loss to penalties and said there’s no room for those kind of mistakes when playing against a team like ECU.
“Crazy, stupid penalties. That’s the No. 19 team in the nation,” Davis said. “We can’t expect to go out there and shoot ourselves in the foot and win the ballgame. It’s not going to happen.”
Penalties certainly stalled drives for the Bulls, but the Pirates were penalized 12 times for 148 yards compared to USF’s eight penalties for 59. ECU was even penalized three times for 30 yards on a drive that ended in a touchdown.
With the Bulls’ offense off the field for the majority of the second half because of their inability to sustain a drive, the defense grew tired and ECU exploited their fatigue.
ECU’s offense, which had been held to only one touchdown in the first half, exploded for 21 unanswered points in the second half. Taggart said this was possible because the Bulls struggled to make clean tackles.
“We missed a lot of tackles in the second half,” Taggart said. “They broke a lot of tackles and converted on some third downs.”
Sophomore safety Nate Godwin said that ECU wore down the USF defense until it couldn’t contain the Pirates anymore.
“With the defense being on the field a lot, after a while it starts to wear down, kind of like the Wisconsin game,” Godwin said. “When the defense gets worn down, missed tackles start to happen, blown assignments, things of that sort.”
Godwin said the pressure of beating a ranked school got into the heads of his teammates on defense.
“I think some guys get a little excited,” Godwin said. “I learned from last week. I realized that even though we’re up, it doesn’t mean we’re going to win it. I think we come out in the second half and we don’t click like we do in the first half. For some reason I feel like we think it should be given to us.”
Even with the second half collapse, USF held the Pirates to 15 points below their season average of 43 points per game, but the Bulls’ offense still couldn’t keep up.
Davis became the all-time leader in receiving yards in USF history with his six-catch, 124-yard performance, but he wasn’t pleased with the record.
“I kind of felt like I would get it eventually, but it is what it is,” Davis said. “It’s a great accomplishment, but I would rather have the win.”
USF has outscored the No. 19 team in the nation 20-10 in the first half of its last two games combined, but the Bulls’ inability to close out games has hindered them from making progress.
“I think our guys know we can be a good football team, but we can’t do it if we keep helping everyone beat us,” Taggart said.