By TOM ZEBOLD
USF Senior Writer
TAMPA – USF was about a minute away from making Saturday’s homecoming game an instant classic.
B.J. Daniels’ 10-yard touchdown pass to Andre Davis gave the Bulls a four-point lead with 1:27 remaining, but the Bulls failed to hold on in a 37-34 loss to Cincinnati before a crowd of 44,248 at Raymond James Stadium.
Cincinnati (6-1, 2-0 in Big East) drove 70 yards in the game’s final moments and got the winning points on a 2-yard quarterback keeper from Zach Collaros with 12 seconds remaining.
“My heart breaks for our players,” said head coach Skip Holtz as USF lost its third straight Big East game and dropped to 4-3 overall this season.
Still there were several bright spots for USF, especially for an offense that was looking for a breakthrough performance.
Daniels completed 31 of 48 passes for a career-high 409 yards with three touchdowns. The redshirt junior threw for 71 yards on USF’s final go-ahead drive, including three passes of 19 yards or more.
“I thought B.J. was a champion today. He competed his tail off,” Holtz said.
Redshirt freshman Deonte Welch got the first start of his career and definitely made it count by catching five passes for a game-high 130 yards.
Andre Davis, a true freshman, caught four passes for 60 yards and proved he can be a clutch player with his score that could have been a game-winner for USF.
“Each of them make plays every day in practice. It’s not surprise to us,” Daniels said. “They finally had the opportunity to make those plays.”
Before the Bulls’ offense started roaring, their defense set the tone for what would be a thrilling finish in USF’s first home game since Sept. 24.
Cincinnati had two shots at grabbing the initial lead and came up empty-handed both times.
The Bearcats’ first drive of the game was wiped out with a 33-yard field goal miss by Tony Miliano.
A fumble during a Daniels sack gave the Bearcats the ball back at the USF 13, but the Bulls held tight once again. JaQuez Jenkins, who got the start, intercepted a Collaros pass in the end zone on third-and-15 that provided a huge momentum shift for USF.
Daniels made good on the second chance by going 7-for-9 for 72 yards through the air after the turnover and capped the drive off with a 14-yard touchdown pass to Sterling Griffin. The TD marked the seventh time in seven games that the Bulls have scored first this season.
Griffin got the payoff catch, but Welch did a lot of the work beforehand. The receiver caught two passes for 27 yards, including one for 22, and finished the first quarter with 63 yards.
Cincinnati bounced back on its next drive with a 71-yard march to the end zone. The Bulls brought a huge blitz on a third down at the USF 6 when Collaros found Isaiah Pead wide open for a touchdown pass that tied things up with 2:21 remaining in the first quarter. Pead has scored at least one touchdown in seven straight games this season.
USF had a chance to take the lead on a 21-yard field goal attempt by Maikon Bonani, but a low snap prevented the kick and resulted in a recovery by the Bearcats at their own 17. A facemask call against USF gave new life to Cincinnati’s drive in Bulls territory and Miliano came through on a 43-yard field goal attempt that gave the Bearcats their first lead of the game with 9:05 to play before the half.
Five punts followed the score before the aggressive USF defense came up with a huge turnover. A blitz sent Collaros about 20 yards into the backfield and his flick of a pass moving forward found its way into the hands of USF safety Jerrell Young with less than two minutes remaining in the half.
Powered by a 37-yard reception by Welch, USF drove 62 yards and tied it up with no time remaining on a 20-yard field goal by Bonani. The catch by Welch got him to an even 100 and helped him become the second Bull this season to accomplish the feat. Welch also became the 19th player in USF history to record a 100-yard receiving game.
USF did a solid job in the first half of containing an explosive Cincinnati offense, especially Pead who had only 34 rushing yards by the break. Pead was coming off a 151-yard game that earned him Big East Offensive Player of the Week honors.
Third down was an area of concern heading into game for the USF offense, which showed improvement by going 4-for-9 in the opening half. The Bulls converted on two of them during their touchdown drive. USF also started off strong by scoring twice out of three opportunities in the red zone.
The Bulls were all good on their first fourth-down conversion of the game at the start of the second half.
Demetris Murray got just enough to the Cincinnati 20 and USF followed by going 5-for-10 on third down with a 13-yard pass to Griffin that put the Bulls at the Bearcats’ 1. USF had a 17-10 lead one play later on Murray’s fourth rushing touchdown of the season.
Daniels’ hot hand helped in the process on the go-ahead drive. The redshirt junior went 4-for-5 through the air, including a 26-yard strike to Evan Landi, to help USF move toward making things very interesting in a wide-open Big East conference.
Collaros’ arm also was effective to start the second half and it got Cincinnati right back in it on the ensuing drive. The senior hit Kenbrell Hopkins for a 39-yard pass and found Adrien Robinson wide open one play later on a 21-yard scoring play to complete an 80-yard drive that took just 2 minutes, 17 seconds.
A USF defense that frustrated Pead was back at it more than midway through the third quarter when linebacker DeDe Lattimore forced and recovered a fumble to put the Bulls at midfield. It marked Lattimore’s second forced fumble of the season and USF’s 17th fumble recovery of the season.
Lattimore got a nice pat on the back eight plays later when Bonani’s 40-yard field goal gave USF a 20-17 lead with 3:03 remaining in the third.
Special teams was another area USF wanted to see great improvement in and the Bulls got a huge boost at home. Victor Marc, in his first game as a punt returner, gave USF its longest punt return of the season by going 40 yards and setting the Bulls up at the Cincinnati 20 with less than a minute to go in the third.
Daniels found Andreas Shields for a 17-yard scoring connection two plays later and USF suddenly had a 27-17 lead. Daniels was at 299 passing yards at that point and was well on his way to going over 300 for the third time this season.
Cincinnati was far from out of it, however.
Collaros got the Bearcats (5-2, 1-1) within three with a 3-yard run that opened up the scoring in the fourth quarter. He struck again with 9:13 left when his 30-yard touchdown pass to Alex Chisum gave the Bearcats a 30-27 advantage.
It would have been a 31-27 lead if it wasn’t for an extra-point block by USF defensive end Claude Davis.
USF got its last shot at points on a drive that started with 3:37 to go and Daniels got to work at the Bulls’ own 17.
Daniels hit Marc for 18 yards, Welch for 30 yards and Murray for 19 more on an 83-yard drive that ate up 2 minutes, 10 seconds off the clock.
The Bearcats’ comeback hopes came to fruition, however, thanks to Collaros, who completed 26 of 41 passes for 389 yards and three scores.
USF did pin down the Big East’s second-leading rusher, however. Pead came away with only 79 yards a week after gashing Louisville for 153 on the way to becoming the conference’s offensive player of the week.
“We were going to try to take Pead out of the way and make them beat us with big plays. Credit them, they did,” USF defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said.
USF has another open date next week before heading on the road to face Rutgers on Saturday, Nov. 5.