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Bulls squander another late lead

No. 23 USF 20, Louisville 24

Adhering to the theme of giving up late fourth-quarter leads, the No. 23 South Florida Bulls collapsed in a 24-20 upset to the Louisville Cardinals on Saturday at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium.

It’s been that kind of year for USF.

“Everything we saw on tape with them in recent games was there,” senior wide receiver Taurus Johnson said. “We just had a lot of little mistakes that set us back.”

The Bulls (6-2, 1-2 Big East) committed 14 penalties for 109 yards, including a defensive holding penalty on a missed field goal that would have given USF, down 24-20, the ball back with just under two minutes to play.

Coach Jim Leavitt said he was surprised to see the holding call.

“I would have liked to get the ball at the end there,” he said. “We would have had about 1:40 left, but we didn’t get that chance. I hope that call they made was the right call. I just don’t understand it. If it’s a good call then great. If it’s not though — Lord help them.”

After falling behind early to the Cardinals, junior quarterback Matt Grothe — who threw for 344 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions — led the Bulls back to a 20-17 lead in the fourth quarter on a 15-yard touchdown pass to junior tight end Ben Busbee.

However, just as the Bulls squandered a fourth-quarter lead in their loss against Pittsburgh, the Bulls let Cardinal senior Hunter Cantwell and the Louisville offense score right away. Louisville wide receiver Scott Long reeled in a 24-yard touchdown reception with 7:07 remaining in the game.

Grothe said that kind of thing has frustrated USF in its losses.

“Going down and scoring the touchdown then having them come back and score … they did a good job on offense of going down and putting points on the board,” he said.

It wasn’t the first time in the game that the Bulls surrendered a lead. The Bulls took a 3-0 lead in the second quarter on a 32-yard field goal by freshman kicker Maikon Bonani, only to have it slip away as the Cardinals took a 14-6 lead into halftime.

Louisville coach Steve Kragthorpe said he was happy with the way his team played.

“The way they started and continued to fight, battle and persevere in a seesaw battle against a very good, Top-20 football team was very good,” he said.

USF’s offensive line had a hard time protecting Grothe. The Cardinals (5-2, 1-1) used a number of different blitz packages, which Kragthorpe said frustrated the USF offensive line. The Bulls allowed five sacks.

“We wanted to mix it up defensively,” Kragthorpe said. “I thought the key in our pass rush was our defensive tackles. There were a couple times where it looked like we had (Grothe), but he scrambled out and found a way to make a play.”

One of the only times Grothe didn’t make that play was on the Bulls’ last offensive possession. Louisville brought a blitz and forced him to make an errant throw, right into the hands of Cardinals linebacker Johnny Patrick.

The Louisville sideline exploded. The South Florida sideline fell silent.

With the loss, the Bulls’ chances at a Big East championship — and a Bowl Championship Series appearance — are in jeopardy. Not only did the Bulls (1-2 in the Big East) move below Louisville in the conference standings, they now sit second to last, just above Syracuse — which is winless in conference play.

It’s not going to get any easier for USF, Johnson said. The Bulls travel to Cincinnati — where they’ve never won — Thursday night.

“This was an important game for us,” he said. “It’s a tough loss, but we have to get back on the road and get ready for Cincinnati.”