Four weeks ago, a performance like this would have been lauded.
A fledgling USF putting forth a Herculean effort in a snake pit like Navy — one of the grittiest and most disciplined programs in all of college football — before falling short would have been fine for some.
Heck, most had already chalked this one up as a loss when the schedule came out, anyway. The competitiveness itself might have even served as a moral victory — a small confidence booster for the final stretch.
But when it all played out in Annapolis, Maryland on Saturday afternoon, you couldn’t help but feel some sort of disappointment deep in the pit of your stomach. Another opportunity to make a resounding, take-a-look-at-us pronouncement slipped right through the cracks.
USF had the Midshipmen right where it wanted them — seven minutes from pulling undoubtedly one of its most surprising upsets in years. Then, the Bulls torpedoed right back down to earth as one youthful blunder after another handed Navy a 29-17 victory.
They simply failed to finish — again.
“Navy beat us in every phase,” coach Willie Taggart said. “We made some mistakes that we can’t make against a winning and mature football team like Navy.”
The way things started for the Bulls (4-4, 2-2) made you wonder if this was going to be that breakthrough to build on an already impressive three-game winning streak. Rodney Adams spurred it by zipping in and out of defenders on his way to a 97-yard touchdown on the game’s opening kickoff — USF’s first since 2010.
Reality, however, settled in a short time later.
Despite Auggie Sanchez’s career-best 14 tackles, USF’s defense allowed Navy (6-1, 4-0) to put up 428 rushing yards. Three Midshipmen — Keenan Reynolds, Chris Swain and Dishan Romine — tallied 100-plus-yard rushing performances, a first for the program, which started in 1879.
Untested sophomore kicker Emilio Nadelman missed a pair of critical field goals from 46 and 32 yards, forcing Taggart to reopen the starting competition for the position this week before Saturday’s game at East Carolina.
The rushing attack was unusually quiet, too. With tailback Marlon Mack and quarterback Quinton Flowers still nursing injuries, the Bulls finished with a season-low 62 yards.
But two of the ugliest — and, perhaps, most disappointing — mistakes by USF occurred within minutes of each other in the fourth quarter.
Trailing 22-17 after a 1-yard touchdown run by Reynolds with 6:58 remaining, it seemed the Bulls would have one last opportunity to drive down the field for the go-ahead score. It never happened. On the ensuing kickoff, Adams coughed up the ball near midfield and Navy recovered.
During the Midshipmen’s possession that followed, USF came up with what should have been the stop of the day on third down from the 34-yard line. For whatever reason, junior defensive back Johnny Ward had other plans.
After the play, Ward was whistled for unsportsmanlike conduct after Taggart said he was told Ward hit the ball out of the hands of an official. Instead of forcing Navy to attempt a long field goal and keep it a one-possession game, buoyed by a fresh set of downs, the Midshipmen scored on another 1-yard run by Reynolds to seal it seven plays later.
“That killed us,” Taggart said.
In all likelihood, it also killed USF’s already-slim shot at winning the American Athletic Conference’s Eastern division. With four games remaining, the Bulls are tied with Cincinnati for second place, two games behind Temple for the top spot and must win out to remain in contention.
“We didn’t make the winning plays that we needed to make in that ballgame,” Taggart said. “We were playing turnover-free until the end, but we just didn’t play winning football overall.”
The key now will be whether or not the Bulls let this linger. After all, it’s a youthful group and if the past few seasons are any indication, the final few weeks are the most difficult for this program to complete.
They can’t afford to allow history to repeat itself now. Chalk it up as another learning experience. Take away the few positives that were garnered, make the necessary corrections and move forward to East Carolina.
If the Bulls let their disappointment stew, the rest of this season will follow the same path of this bitter defeat:
Right through the cracks.