Playing against the top team in the conference with bowl eligibility on the line, USF had a prime opportunity to close in on Memphis (8-3, 6-1) with the third quarter winding down, but failed to do so, losing 31-20.
Despite scoring only one touchdown against the Tigers, the Bulls found themselves trailing Memphis 28-13 with a first and goal at the Memphis four-yard line with less than five minutes remaining in the third quarter.
A run by sophomore running back Darius Tice and a sack of sophomore quarterback Mike White pushed the Bulls back to third and goal from the nine, but coach Willie Taggart said he thought he had a play that would get the Bulls a touchdown.
But rather than scoring, sophomore running back Marlon Mack fumbled the ball and Memphis took over
“We faked it to the back and pitched it up to our tailback and the timing just wasn’t right and he ended up dropping it,” Taggart said.
The fumble would be the Bulls’ only turnover of the day, but it proved too costly against the Tigers.
“We said to have a good chance in this game we couldn’t have any turnovers,” Taggart said. “I know we had one, but it was critical.”
While USF’s offense kept the game close until the fourth quarter, the Bulls’ defense made it a struggle.
Memphis running back Brandon Hayes rushed for 189 yards on 21 carries and allowed the Tigers to take advantage of play-action passes.
“It was frustrating because the running back was running really well and as a safety, and pretty much as a defense period, you want to stop that run,” junior safety Jamie Byrd said.
With the defense focused on Hayes, who contributed over 200 yards of total offense, sophomore quarterback Paxton Lynch was able to open up the offense and essentially score at will. Lynch threw for 232 yards on 18-of-23 passing with two touchdowns. He also picked up 44 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.
In an effort to slow down the Memphis offense and keep the game within reach, USF opted to run the ball often and throw shorter passes. By sustaining long drives this way, the Bulls were able to control the ball for 36:47 of the game, which is something White said played a big factor in keeping the game close until the final quarter.
“We felt we had to just go out there and keep their offense on the field and go out there and have those long drives that keep our defense rested and keeps the ball out of their offense’s hands,” White said.
But despite the Bulls’ efforts to keep the ball as long as possible, Memphis’ quick offensive attack had the Bulls on their heels for most of the game.
“They were moving so fast, we were trying to think as fast as they were moving and there were so many missed assignments,” Byrd said.
With the loss, USF (4-7, 3-4) will be held out of postseason play for the fourth consecutive season. USF will host UCF (7-3, 5-1) on Friday at noon in the Bulls’ final game of the season.