By TOM ZEBOLD
USF Senior Writer
TAMPA - The Bulls will be keeping a tighter grip on the ball moving forward after watching their Big East opener slip away.
USF turned the ball over four times in a 23-13 loss to Rutgers before a crowd of 44,219 at Raymond James Stadium on Thursday night. The Scarlet Knights (3-0) scored 13 points off three of the Bulls’ four giveaways as USF dropped to 2-1 this season.
“We have to do a better job of taking care of it,” USF head coach Skip Holtz said. “If we protect the football, we’ll at least give ourselves a chance.”
Holtz called what happened to B.J. Daniels “unfortunate” after the senior quarterback threw three interceptions with two coming off passes that escaped teammates’ hands.
“I think B.J. is competing his tail off. Without much of a running game in front of him, I really thought he did a good job today out there handling all the pressure he received,” Holtz said.
Jawan Jamison provided Rutgers with finishing power by rushing for 151 yards, including a 41-yard scoring run that put the game away with 1:19 left in the fourth quarter.
What ended with a quick Jamison sprint started with production from the powerful leg of Maikon Bonani.
USF struck first with a 41-yard field goal by the senior kicker with 7:35 to go in the opening quarter after the Bulls capitalized on Rutgers’ many mistakes. The Scarlet Knights were penalized four times on their opening drive and let USF get past midfield on the scoring drive by committing a personal foul while trying to wrap up a scrambling Daniels.
Kicker Kyle Federico had a chance to tie it up for Rutgers on the ensuing drive, but the holder Justin Doerner mishandled the snap and the 42-yard field goal attempt was blocked by DeDe Lattimore.
USF’s third drive of the game stalled, but Rutgers’ lack of discipline continued when the Scarlet Knights roughed punter Justin Brockhaus-Kann. Rutgers’ made a second mistake on the play when Mason Robinson fumbled the punt return after getting hit by Fidel Montgomery, which set the Bulls up at the Scarlet Knights’ 36.
Four plays later, USF career points leader Bonani gave USF a 6-0 lead with a 46-yard kick that set a new Bulls record for consecutive field goal attempts made. Bill Gramatica previously held the school record after making eight straight field goal attempts in 1999-2000.
The only points of the second quarter were scored by Rutgers after Federico nailed a 51-yard field goal with 28 seconds remaining in the half. The Scarlet Knights could have had more, but cornerback George Baker had two huge pass breakups deep in USF territory. The senior’s second knocked down pass came on third-and-10 with Rutgers at the Bulls’ 35.
Rutgers was forced to punt on the opening drive of the second half, but the Scarlet Knights had new life after recovering a Terrence Mitchell fumble on the return at the USF 37. Federico’s 30-yard field goal tied the game up at 6 with 10:40 remaining in the third quarter.
USF’s second big mistake of the half came on its first drive when Daniels’ screen pass to Demetris Murray bounced off the running back’s hands and was intercepted by Jamal Merrell at the Bulls’ 30. Rutgers grabbed its first lead of the game with 7 minutes left in the quarter when Gary Nova threw a 6-yard touchdown pass to Mark Harrison.
The Bulls’ offense had struggled on third down all night, but Daniels’ athleticism paid off deep in Rutgers territory late in the third quarter. USF faced a third-and-9 at the Scarlet Knights’ 32 when the senior avoided a sack, scrambled right and found Derrick Hopkins for a 16-yard strike to the Rutgers 15.
Another tipped pass doomed the drive, however, when Daniels’ toss to Evan Landi bounced off the tight end and into hands of Wayne Warren in the end zone with 2:59 remaining in the third quarter.
“The ball didn’t really bounce our way,” Daniels said.
A tipped pass finally fell into USF’s favor when the team needed it the most. The Bulls faced a third-and-10 at the Rutgers’ 33 when Daniels went for it all downfield in the fourth quarter. The deep pass went through the fingertips of Scarlet Knights cornerback of Marcus Cooper and was caught by Hopkins at the 1. Murray plunged into the end zone one play later to help USF tie things up at 13 with 9:23 left in the game.
Thursday’s crazy swing of events turned in Rutgers’ favor after the huge momentum shift when Nova found Tim Wright for a 46-yard gain down to the USF 7 with less than 5 minutes to play. The USF defense tightened up and limited the Scarlet Knights to a 22-yard Federico field goal with 2:48 remaining.
USF gambled inside of 3 minutes to play by going for it on fourth-and-4 at its own 41 and came up short when Daniels’ pass intended for Mitchell fell incomplete. The Scarlet Knights put the game away two plays later when Jamison completed his 41-yard run to the end zone.
“It’s still one game and we still have a long season ahead of us,” said an optimistic Daniels.
The Bulls will try to bounce back on the road Saturday, Sept. 22 when they face Ball State in Muncie, Ind.