Some losses are harder to swallow than others.
USF’s 20-17 loss to No. 17 Cincinnati on Saturday night at Raymond James Stadium might be downright impossible for the Bulls (4-6, 2-4) to stomach.
With the score tied at 17 with just over two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, an 82-yard USF drive — aided largely by a 41-yard reception by Eddie McDoom, where the junior wide receiver dragged multiple defenders for an additional 20 or so yards — stalled at the Cincinnati 15-yard line.
Freshman kicker Spencer Shrader lined up for a 33-yard field-goal attempt to put the Bulls up by three points late.
The kick missed off the right upright, leaving Cincinnati (9-1, 6-0) — which still had two timeouts — 2:07 for a potential game-winning score of its own.
The Bearcats subsequently drove 60 yards, setting up a 37-yard field-goal attempt by Sam Crosa, which the graduate transfer hit as time expired.
“This one hurts, and it hurts because you saw a great team effort tonight,” an emotional coach Charlie Strong said. “We had our opportunities and it was tough just because of the opportunities that we had, and it’s no blame for anyone. It’s just one of those losses that, it’s a team loss.”
Shrader, who did make a 28-yard field goal early in the second quarter, missed three other field goals (50, 53, 43 yards) prior to the potential go-ahead kick.
“We all had our arms around him [after the game],” senior tight end Mitchell Wilcox said. “Love Spencer. He’s a great kicker. It’s unfortunate they weren’t going through tonight, but he’s a great kicker, he’s got a great career ahead of him.”
Other than the missed field goals, the Bulls vastly outplayed the Bearcats most of the night.
The Bulls’ defense forced Cincinnati to punt on six straight drives to start the game. The only Cincinnati drive that didn’t end in a punt in the first half ended on a fumble recovered by junior defensive tackle Kevin Kegler late in the second quarter.
Additionally, the Bearcats only had 46 net yards of offense at halftime.
“It was a great defensive effort,” Strong said. “Lately we’ve been playing very well on defense and our guys have been playing with so much energy. … The first half was just a total domination on defense.”
Meanwhile, the Bulls’ offense scored quickly. On USF’s third play from scrimmage, redshirt freshman Jordan McCloud found sophomore wide receiver Randall St. Felix for a 55-yard reception, with senior running back Trevon Sands rushing 4 yards for a touchdown the very next play.
“We realized when we score fast, that’s when we play our best — that’s when we get into a rhythm,” McCloud said. “When we take time to score late in games, that’s when it’s not going good.”
McCloud also found Wilcox for a 4-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter to cap off a seven-play, 75-yard drive.
USF also had a touchdown called back on its second drive of the game. McCloud found sophomore wide receiver Bryce Miller for what initially appeared to be a 22-yard touchdown reception, except St. Felix was flagged for offensive pass interference. However, video replay appeared to show very little, if any, interference from St. Felix.
The drive ultimately ended in Shrader’s first missed field goal.
In total, the Bulls outgained Cincinnati 438-278 and had almost 190 yard more passing than the Bearcats.
It wasn’t enough in the end, though, as Cincinnati came out of the halftime break with three straight scoring drives, including two touchdown rushes by running backs Gerrid Doaks and Michael Warren, respectively.
“Every loss hurts, no matter the score,” McCloud said. “This one hurts really bad, because we thought we had them. We played really good. … This one just hurts.”
USF’s season is effectively on the line next weekend against No. 18 Memphis. The Bulls need to win their final two games — including the game against the Tigers — in order to become bowl eligible for the fifth straight season.
It may as well be Priority 1 for Strong.
“We have two games left,” Strong said, “and we’ve got to get to a bowl game. Memphis is coming here next week. We’ve got to be ready to go, and get ready for Central Florida.”