Three of USF’s four team captains (all seniors) refused to comment after a 31-15 loss to Memphis on Saturday, but little needed to be said after the Bulls’ bowl hopes were dashed by a second straight loss to a bowl-caliber team.
With the loss, USF will not come through on the second of its two biggest goals for this season: to reach a bowl game before heading to the Big East.
Winning a Conference USA championship — the team’s other goal — was lost early on.USF coach Jim Leavitt didn’t have much of an answer after the Bulls’ trailed the entire game in front of 21,392 people, the second smallest home crowd in Bulls history.
“I can’t tell you why we didn’t play as well as I was hoping,” Leavitt said. “I thought we’d play a little bit better today.”
With the loss, the Bulls finish with only their second losing season in team history. The first came in USF’s 1997 inaugural season.
“We haven’t played real good,” Leavitt said. “I wasn’t really talking as much about bowls as much as the need to play well. We’ve got to stand up as coaches and we’ve got to coach better. It starts with me and our staff.”
Memphis scored on its first four possessions and quickly went up 16-0. The Bulls cut the Tigers’ lead to nine on a 1-yard run by quarterback Pat Julmiste in the third quarter.
Four plays later, Memphis running back DeAngelo Williams broke off a 51-yard touchdown run to go up 23-7.
With time winding down in the third quarter, USF needed at least two touchdowns. But for the third time in the game, USF couldn’t convert on a fourth and 1.
The Bulls marched down the field on a drive that began at their own 20-yard line and needed to convert on fourth and 1 from Memphis’ goal line.
The Bulls lined up with a reverse called, Hall said, but it appeared Memphis was prepared for the play and he changed the play to a run up the middle. With the offense set to run the fifth play of the fourth quarter, receiver Jackie Chambers called a timeout just before the ball was snapped and Clenton Crossley crossed the goal line.
After the timeout, USF tried a pitch to Hall, but he had nowhere to run.
“If the offense can’t get fourth and short we don’t deserve to win,” Julmiste said.
Williams took over, scoring his second touchdown of the game on a 44-yard scamper.
“Our biggest nemesis of the season so far is that we haven’t played very good defense,” Leavitt said. “(Williams) made us look silly.”
Williams’ 263 yards are the most any back has ever rushed for against the Bulls.
“We talked about it. We went over it as a team,” Hall said. “And then we came out here on the field and let it backfire. We just couldn’t stop it. That hurt because they knew what they had to do and just couldn’t get the job done.”
The offense couldn’t get anything going until the second half, with only 120 of its 431 yards coming in the first.
Against the third-worst passing defense in the country, USF attempted just six passes in the first half. Pat Julmiste finished 18 for 36 with 191 passing yards. Hall finished with 134 yards rushing.
While the Bulls sit and wonder what could have been, Memphis will wait to see what bowl game it’ll play in over the break.
“We are really excited,” Memphis coach Tommy West said. “This is the first time in 42 years, I believe, that we’ve won eight games in back-to-back seasons. And it will be the first time in the history of the school that we’ve been to two straight bowl games. This is really big-time. When it’s never been done before, it’s big-time.”
The Bulls close out what has been a disappointing season Saturday at 11 a.m. against Pittsburgh in what will be a preview of the Big East Conference. The game will be broadcast on ESPN.