USF won’t go undefeated in 2017.
In a game that came down to its final seconds, USF fell to Houston 28-24 in front of an announced crowd of 32,316 at Raymond James Stadium on Saturday night. The loss was USF’s (7-1) first of the season, ending its nation leading win streak of 12 games.
It’s an unpleasant reality for the No. 17 Bulls, but their aspirations of reaching a New Year’s Six bowl game and conference championship are still intact.
They still hold control over their future.
However, the way they lost to Houston (5-3) — a last-second touchdown — is the most painful ever for some Bulls.
“Absolutely,” said defensive tackle Deadrin Senat on the loss being his toughest ever. “Just because we had so many expectations to win this game. We had it in our hands. We could’ve did just a little bit more. I myself could’ve done just a little bit more and I know everybody on this defense is feeling the same way.”
USF had taken a 24-21 lead over Houston with only 1:46 to play via a 30-yard field goal from kicker Emilio Nadelman.
Then, on the ensuing kick-off, the Cougars returned the kick 50 yards to the USF 49-yard line.
Despite the excellent field position for Houston, the Bulls defense stood strong at first — recording a tackle for loss and a sack from Senat, forcing the Cougars all the way back to their own 37 yard-line.
On fourth and 24, the USF defensive line forced Houston quarterback D’Eriq King out of the pocket. King launched the ball 30-yards down field into a crowd and Cougar wide receiver Courtney Lark brought it in for a first down.
“Just go up and knock it down,” USF coach Charlie Strong said.
The Bulls didn’t, however, and then three plays later on third-and-nine, King scrambled out of the backfield, through the Bulls defense and into the end zone for a 20-yard touchdown with 18 seconds left to play.
USF’s last-ditch effort was an 11 button-hook to wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling. The senior from St. Petersburg made some defenders miss, but was eventually taken down after a 33-yard gain.
Despite the loss, Valdes-Scantling had the best game of his collegiate career with 10 receptions and 186 yards — but the statistics were meaningless without a team win, according to him.
“Career things don’t really matter to me,” Valdes-Scantling said. “I want to win the game.”
The same went for Strong.
“This is a tough one,” Strong said. “We never had it going on offense. It came down to who could rush the ball and they (Houston) did.”
USF held Houston to only 37 rushing yards in the first half, but let up 218 in the second. Cougar second-string running back Mulbah Car started to see more touches in the second half after starter Duke Catalon went down with an injury. Car tallied only 11 yards in the first half, but finished the game with 141 after carving holes in the USF defense in the third and fourth quarters.
“We gotta get back to playing USF defense,” linebacker Auggie Sanchez said. “We can’t come out in the second half and give up 180 rushing yards — that’s how you lose games.”
Though the defeat is sure to hurt USF in the Associated Press Top 25 and in the first college football playoff rankings that come out Tuesday, the Bulls can still make it to the conference championship by winning out in the regular season — and potentially in a New Year’s six bowl game.
“We can use this to build on,” Sanchez said. “We still control our own destiny.”