(We continue our review of football season because none of us really have the heart to talk about just how sucky our basketball team is at the moment.)
Confidence was not very high going into Cincinnati. The Bulls had scored a total of 15 points against Syracuse and West Virginia, the offense was completely stuck in the mud, and USF had never won at Nippert Stadium. On top of that, USF decided to shut Sterling Griffin down for the year and have him use his redshirt, and A.J. Love was clearly not going to recover in time to play any time during the season. We had hoped the cavalry would show up around this point and help jump-start the sputtering USF offense, but now those hopes were dashed. Things looked really grim, and the Bulls proceeded to go to Cincinnati on a Friday night and give up a school-record 590 yards, including almost 500 yards passing between Zach Collaros and Chazz Anderson.
And yet USF won 38-30, partly because the defense came up with huge goal-line stops to hold the Bearcats to field goals or nothing, including the game-ending stop after a wacky drive. But it was also because B.J. Daniels finally snapped out of his funk and hit every big play he needed to hit in order for the Bulls to win the game.
This kicked off a strange and yet intensely exciting two months of football. Sure, there was no way USF was going to win the Big East or be anything more than a hidden curiosity in the grand scheme of things. But that was OK. We could be happy underground.
Everything's heavy underground
You been kicked around
Did life bring you down here
Everything's heavy underground
All of the last six games were decided by eight points or less, four by a field goal or less, and they all came down to either the last play or the next-to-last play. Two of them went to overtime. I haven't been entirely able to figure out whether USF made these games deliberately close, but that's my suspicion. With an inconsistent offense, a solid defense, and a cracker-jack return game and place kicker, it made sense to try and win tight games. It made for nerve-wracking viewing, but it was also a sign of Skip Holtz and his coaches making the adjustments that didn't used to happen.
I think the old way of doing things hit rock bottom at Rutgers last year, when it was windy and USF persisted in trying to do the only thing they were good at, namely letting Daniels run around and try to throw deep passes. This will shock you, but they got shut out. This year's game against Rutgers was a different animal. Both teams were sloppy and made head-slapping mistakes. USF let Rutgers score on a blatant trick play and committed the brain cramp of the year on a punt return. But Chas Dodd threw a hilariously bad screen pass to give the Bulls a safety, and Jacob Sims ended up winning the game 28-27 with a FAT GUY TOUCHDOWN, recovering a Mo Plancher fumble in the end zone.
The next week, the Bulls went to Louisville, another place they had never won. And once again they seemed to get the exact play they needed at the exact time they needed it. When the Cardinals took a 14-3 lead, Lindsey Lamar ran the ensuing kickoff back for a touchdown. When Louisville threatened twice in the third quarter, the defense came up with clutch turnovers. After the game went to overtime and the Cardinals decided to go for it on fourth and inches from the 5-yard line, the defense rose up and stopped a Justin Burke sneak. Maikon Bonani kicked the game winner and USF reached bowl eligibility with a 24-21 win.
Of course, you can only live on the edge and get away with it for so long. A week later in Tampa, Bulls trailed Pittsburgh 17-10 late and got one more chance to tie the game after Dan Hutchins yanked a field goal (Toro and Ken can vouch for this unless the subsequent Four Loko abuse killed those brain cells, but I confidently predicted Hutchins would miss based on nothing but the ball being placed on the left hashmark. Brent Musberger would have been so proud of me). However, the Bulls proceeded to execute one of the worst two-minute drills of all time and failed to cross midfield before throwing an interception on the last play, sealing the loss and knocking USF out of Big East title contention once and for all.
With expectations right back down in the gutter, the Bulls headed into the last two games of the regular season, at Miami and hosting Connecticut. And if you hadn't been emotionally wiped out by what had happened against Cincinnati, Rutgers, Louisville, and Pittsburgh, well, there was a whole new level to go to. We'll try and make sense of those games in the final part of our season review.