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Another failure for USF football

I can’t believe it.

Didn’t this happen in 2007? The promising start, top-10 ranking, national championship hopes, and then the reality check seem all too familiar.

Neither the South Florida coaches nor its players learned from last year’s mistakes. They said they did and then forgot the lesson once they stepped onto the field.

Like last year, the Bulls had fans “feeling it” with a 5-0 start and a top-15 ranking. Then, they fell out of contention after losing three of their last four games.

The win against Syracuse was just a facade, exciting fans before deflating their hopes as the Bulls lost back-to-back games on the road. The losses took USF out of Big East title contention — and once again it all happened with three games to go.

Anybody can make mistakes when asked to do something for the first time. It’s human nature. USF wasn’t used to being in the spotlight and learned what it was like last year, stumbling along as many other teams have.   

This year was supposed to be different. USF should have learned from last year, when the team stepped into the Thursday night national spotlight undefeated after a 64-12 drubbing of UCF that had fans thinking national championship, only to get humbled by Rutgers running back Ray Rice and the upstart Scarlet Knights.

The Bulls stepped into that same spotlight on a Thursday night this year, undefeated and with fans imagining a possible Orange Bowl matchup against the Florida Gators.

USF was supposedly the team to beat in the Big East and, to some, destined to decide who was the best in Florida.

But Pittsburgh humbled the Bulls again, this time at home, which surely made the loss sting even more.

Panthers running back LeSean McCoy looked like Ray Rice reincarnated, and the Bulls’ defense didn’t know how to stop him. Their inability to hold onto a 21-20 lead late in the fourth quarter made the loss that much more exasperating.

Then came the back-to-back losses on the road against Louisville and Cincinnati. The defense once again snatched a loss from the jaws of victory, allowing the Cardinals — the same Cardinals who would be defeated by Syracuse a week later — to march down the field for the winning touchdown.

Where was the embarrassment? Where was that intangible something that comes out of a competitor and makes him or her determined to not let the opponent prevail, no matter what? Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and many other college and professional players have it. The USF defense does not.

Last Thursday’s loss against the Bearcats looked a lot like last year’s loss against the Connecticut Huskies — also the third of the season. There was a lackluster first half in which the Bulls fell behind and didn’t seem remotely close to the team that intimidated the Big East in September. Then, too little, too late in the second half, the team showcased red zone ineptitude by quarterback Matt Grothe, the offensive line and Offensive Coordinator Greg Gregory.

The worst part of all this is that the players and coaches can’t seem to find any reasons for the collapse.

When asked by the St. Petersburg Times what has changed since USF’s 5-0 start, Grothe said he had no idea — it was “something.”

Coach Jim Leavitt was recently given a 70-percent pay raise, and he has failed to honor it this season by having the team ready to perform when it counted most.

It is his responsibility to prove he deserves that raise by giving the fans a reason to believe in the Bulls in 2009.