When USF (2-7, 2-3) started off the season with four non-conference losses, winning the American Athletic Conference (AAC) — a goal for coach Willie Taggart’s first season — was still within reach.
But with Saturday’s loss to Memphis, hopes of playing in a bowl game were dashed.
After a 35-23 loss to Houston on Oct. 31, sitting at 2-2 in AAC play, USF had 15 days between games to prepare for Memphis (3-6, 1-4), and for 55 minutes Saturday night, the two squads weren’t separated by more than a touchdown.
With a 6-3 lead and 4:09 remaining in the game, senior Memphis running back Brandon Hayes burst through the USF defense for a five-yard touchdown to make it 13-3, putting the Bulls on life support and forcing freshman quarterback Mike White to try leading the Bulls to a comeback victory.
But the attempt was cut short when White threw his second interception of the night on the first play of the drive.
Four plays later, Memphis tacked on another field goal to make it 16-3.
Two plays into USF’s next drive, White was picked off for the third time.
The Tigers returned the errant pass for a touchdown to make it 23-3. White and the Bulls finally reached the end zone when he connected with junior receiver Andre Davis for a 31-yard touchdown catch to narrow the gap to 23-10.
But it was far too little, far too late.
When the clock struck zero, the Memphis Tigers (previously 0-4 in the AAC) left Raymond James Stadium with a 23-10 win that stuck USF with a 2-7 record, killing the Bulls’ bowl eligibility and requiring an absolute miracle to win the conference.
Two weeks of practice were washed away in a few short moments.
“It does suck,” senior running back Marcus Shaw said. “It’ll surprise anybody. We had so much time to practice.”
In a matter of five minutes, a bowl game went out the window and the Bulls’ mentality for the rest of the season shifted just as fast from one of chasing goals this season to setting themselves up for the next.
“Our motivation is this program,” junior defensive tackle Elkino Watson said. “To get it turned around for everybody else. For the seniors, I’m really playing for (them) — for the guys who put their heart into this program and haven’t been to a bowl these past three years. I just want to get it turned around.”
The future of USF is something Shaw said he takes pride in.
“We’re trying to get it back to where it used to be, before what we’ve been going through the past couple of years,” Shaw said. “I try every day. Even if we lose, we’re all friends. We’re like brothers. I’d rather lose with this them than anybody.”
Watson said players weren’t necessarily given the message of preparing for the future in the unusually extended period in the locker room after the game.
They’re all aware of it.
“It’s something we know from within,” Watson said. “To get this program turned around, we got to start winning. When you win, you get better recruits. One step at a time.”
Some questioned White’s performance, which was quite the opposite of what it had been against Houston, going 18-of-33 with one touchdown and four interceptions in Saturday’s game.
White had four days to prepare for Houston in his first start. He had two weeks to prepare for Memphis in his second. But Memphis had a chance that Houston didn’t have — they were able to study film of White’s tendencies and made the most of it.
Watson said fans didn’t expect too much of White and he’s still the man for the job.
“I know the types of tweets and emails that guy receives,” Watson said. “But I tell you one thing — that guy came in day in, day out and practiced like a champion. He worked like a champion. Everybody has an off night. Maybe it was his off night. But I still have faith and pride in my quarterback Mike White.”
As for the USF defense, which gave up just six points until the 55th minute and allowed 242 total yards, Watson said they still didn’t play well enough.
“I don’t think we played well enough as a defense to win,” he said. “Not giving up points — that’s playing well enough to win. You got to have pride.”
USF plays SMU in the final home game of the season and Senior Day on Saturday at 7 p.m.