371 days had past since the last time the #17 USF Bulls had lost a game. On Saturday night the Houston Cougars ended that streak, handing the Bulls a 28-24 last-minute loss at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.
It wasn’t the only streak broken. The loss snaps the FBS’s longest winning streak at 12, and for the first time in 24 games, the Bulls failed to score 30 or more points.
“This was a tough one. I just like the way the guys battled back and forth, but the thing about it is there were many opportunities in the first half. We never had it going on offense,” head coach Charlie Strong said. “Defensively we can’t allow them to rush the ball the way they did.”
Punts were exchanged for the majority of the first half as both teams struggled to muster anything offensively. USF led only 7-0 at halftime after an eight play, 37-yard drive was capped off by a two-yard touchdown run from D’Ernest Johnson midway through the second quarter.
On first downs in the first half, USF had nine carries for -8 yards and were 2-for-4 passing for 37 yards.
“They loaded the box, and whatever they give you, you have to take it. They loaded the box which prevented us from getting the long runs,” Strong added. “We weren’t able to get the chunk yard.”
Senior quarterback Quinton Flowers finished 23-for-38 for 325 yards with two rushing touchdowns. His main target was fellow senior Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who had a career game, catching 10 passes for 186 yards.
“As a quarterback, as the leader of this team, as a guy that everybody looks up to, I have to push more, because I guess what I did wasn’t enough,” Flowers said. “I have to push more, I have to talk more and get the guys going.”
Houston responded on the opening drive of the second half going 6 plays and 75-yards in 1:58 to tie the game on a 37-yard touchdown pass. Sophomore quarterback D’Eriq King, who did not start, led the second half offensive turnaround for the Cougars who scored three touchdowns in the final 18 minutes.
King, who entered the game late in the first quarter in, finished 12-for-20 for 37 yards and the one touchdown.
“We knew it was going to turn into a running game because they threw the one big pass. What we had to do was just tackle, and not lose our gaps,” Strong added. “It’s all about our gap control, and staying in our gaps. We needed to make them throw the football.”
Tied 21-21 with 6:20 remaining in the game, USF began a drive at the Houston 11-yard line. The Bulls went 64-yards down the field on 10 plays only to stall and settle for a 30-yard field goal from Emilio Nadelman to give USF a 24-21 advantage with 1:46 left in regulation.
Houston had one timeout remaining, meaning USF needed just one more stop on defense to secure the win. However, a USF special teams breakdown allowed the ensuing kickoff to be returned by the Cougars beyond midfield.
"One play's all we needed," Strong said. "Just one."
That play was a 4th and 24 from their own 37-yard line. King connected with Courtney Lark for a 30-yard completion through a maze of USF defenders before keeping it 20-yards himself for the game-winning touchdown with 11 seconds left on a few plays later.
“On the last play, the fourth and 24, just go ahead and knock it down. I told our team, just knock it down,” Strong said.
The Bulls didn’t knock it down, and heartbreak struck the 32,316 announced in attendance for the first time in over a calendar year.
“Our goals are still in front of us. We just have to go win our next three conference games and we’ll get to where we need to get to,” Strong added.
The first of those three comes next Saturday afternoon when the Bulls travel to UConn for a 3:30 p.m kickoff against the Huskies.