USF had a chance to get out in front in the Big East title race, playing in front of a packed Raymond James Stadium and a national audience.
It was then-No. 8 Cincinnati that rose to the occasion, though, leaving the Bulls in familiar territory with another Thursday night defeat.
The 34-17 loss to then-No. 8 Cincinnati was USF’s third straight in a Thursday night, nationally-televised game, and it left USF coach Jim Leavitt looking for answers.
“I don’t know why. If anybody has any answers, let me know,” Leavitt said. “Cincinnati is a good team whether we play them on Thursday night, Friday night or Saturday night. I don’t think it had anything to do with a Thursday night, (but) maybe it does.”
In the three losses, USF has been undefeated after non-conference play but faltered against Big East opponents. Two years ago, No. 2 USF lost at Rutgers while holding a 6-0 record. Last year, the No. 10 Bulls, then 5-0, lost to Pittsburgh at Raymond James Stadium.
The loss had an effect afterward as the 2007 loss to Rutgers began a three-game skid, while the Bulls lost three of their next four last season after falling to Pittsburgh. Senior defensive end George Selvie said the team can’t let a similar thing happen again.
“We just have to put this game behind us,” he said. “We have to let everyone know we have to take it one game at a time. Cincinnati lost last year and won the Big East by winning one game. We have to go out and play every game hard and hope they lose a game.”
Just a day after Cincinnati set itself up for another BCS bowl berth and Big East title run with the win over USF, No. 20 Pittsburgh took the top spot in the conference with a win at Rutgers on Friday, setting up a big meeting between the Bulls and Panthers this Saturday.
USF defensive coordinator Joe Tresey said the Bulls, still looking for their first conference title, have a chance to win the Big East, but it will be difficult.
“Very few teams win their conference undefeated,” he said. “I don’t think anyone’s won the Big East undefeated in a while. One loss can win this league. There’s no question about it. A couple years ago, two losses won the league. We still have a long season ahead of us. We just need to get better.”
USF committed 12 penalties for 113 yards Thursday, and receivers dropped several key passes, including what could have been an 87-yard touchdown to junior Carlton Mitchell to put the Bulls within a touchdown in the third quarter.
“We couldn’t execute,” said USF offensive coordinator Mike Canales. “Our kids kept fighting, waiting for a break. We got a break in the third quarter, had a chance to make a big play. Four dropped balls, you just can’t do (that).”
Cincinnati continued its dominance against USF, winning for the fourth straight time.
The Bearcats jumped up to No. 5 in the latest AP Poll, which was released Sunday afternoon, and are now the front-runner with Pittsburgh in the Big East title race. USF fell out of the top 25 after being ranked for two weeks.
The Bulls face two top-25 opponents next: Pittsburgh and No. 22 West Virginia. USF will then face Rutgers, which defeated the Bulls 49-16 at Raymond James Stadium last season.
“We just need to stay focused, that’s all we can do,” said redshirt freshman quarterback B.J. Daniels, who finished with 282 total yards in his first career home start. “We can’t go in the tank and dwell on this one loss. It’s one loss and you can definitely move on and bounce back from it.