USF pays price for mental mistakes

When the season began, the USF football team seemed to have a bowl game on lock for the seventh consecutive year.

The Bulls beat Notre Dame en route to a 4-0 start and a No. 16 ranking. But, with six losses in seven games, the Bulls need to beat West Virginia on Thursday to become bowl eligible.

The train that had been slipping off the tracks since a loss to Pittsburgh on Sept. 29 fell further with a 34-24 loss to Louisville on Friday at Raymond James Stadium. After leading 17-3 just before halftime, the Bulls gave up a 54-yard kickoff return and 22-second scoring drive to let the Cardinals (7-5, 5-2) back into the game. Louisville unleashed a 31-7 scoring run to clinch a share of the Big East title, becoming the second team in as many years to do so on the Bulls’ home field.

“It’s not like we’re going out there and getting physically beat,” USF senior safety Jerrell Young said. “It’s the mental breakdowns. That we’re going into the last game and still having these mental breakdowns is tough.”

Simply put, the Bulls made too many mistakes to win. Count among them the kickoff return and a muffed punt by junior wide receiver Victor Marc, while also allowing three Louisville touchdowns on blown defensive coverages.

Count, too, a penalty committed by senior long snapper Mike Walsh that erased a school record-tying 72-yard punt that cost the Bulls roughly 40 yards in field position.

Also include a mistake by true freshman wide receiver Andre Davis, who fumbled the ball on a first down and gave the Cardinals the USF 17-yard line.

“It’s frustrating because so many guys are playing so hard and doing so many good things,” coach Skip Holtz said. “But, at the same time, we do so many foolish things that get us beat. Special teams-wise, we give up a long kickoff return, we drop a punt that leads to three points. … Offensively, we fumble. A freshman receiver fumbles and gives up seven points. Defensively, we give up three touchdowns uncontested.”

If USF can’t clean up the mistakes in time for Thursday night’s finale against West Virginia, the Bulls will have a long offseason to think about how different the season could have been.