By TOM ZEBOLD
USF Senior Writer
TAMPA – USF was determined to send its seniors off with a win, but the Pittsburgh defense had other plans Saturday night in the Bulls’ season finale.
The Bulls’ defense held up well despite the offense turning the ball over four times in a 27-3 loss before an announced crowd of 35,141 at Raymond James Stadium. USF (3-9) managed 117 yards of total offense and was forced to take to the air often while the Bulls came up with 8 rushing yards.
“It made for a very long night when you go against the No. 2 pass defense in the league, as good as they are, and you can’t run the ball. It’s going to be a long day,” USF head coach Skip Holtz said.
Senior Sam Barrington promised before the game that he would leave everything he had on the field and his stat line showed that the linebacker came to play. Barrington posted a career-high two sacks and seven tackles, and he finished his USF career eighth all-time in tackles with 258.
“I would have taken no tackles and a win any day,” Barrington said.
The Bulls as a whole ended up with four sacks and got one from senior Kayvon Webster. The senior finished with the team lead in tackles (82) after registering seven stops and a forcing fumble against the Panthers.
“I thought our defense really played well, but I don’t think our offense did,” Holtz said.
Pittsburgh grabbed a 7-0 lead midway through the first quarter after making a heads-up play on defense deep in Bulls territory. Jason Hendricks intercepted a pass off the hands of Andre Davis to set the Panthers up at the USF 21 and Ray Graham rushed for a 1-yard touchdown eight plays later.
Specials teams gave USF a needed lift on the ensuing kickoff when Marcus Shaw posted 48-yard return, but the Bulls failed to cash in on the opportunity. USF drove up to the Pitt 6 when linebacker Todd Thomas stepped in front of a Matt Floyd pass and got the Panthers close to midfield with a 33-yard return. Pitt did not capitalize on the turnover, however, thanks in part to a strip sack by Webster on third down that resulted in a 29-yard loss once the Panthers fell on the fumble.
The Pitt defense got its third turnover late in the first quarter when Shayne Hale sacked Floyd and recovered the fumble at the Bulls’ 24-yard line. USF held the Panthers to a 25-yard field goal by Kevin Harper less than 2 minutes into the second quarter.
Pitt had one more shot inside the USF 10 in the closing seconds of the half and had to settle for a 27-yard field goal after an impressive stand by the USF defense. Graham was stuffed on a second-and-goal from the 3 and Barrington got the Panthers moving in the opposite direction by sacking Tino Sunseri for an 8-yard loss.
Barrington had two sacks and five tackles at the half after helping the Bulls limit Pitt to 137 yards of total offense.
Pitt (6-6) padded its lead to 20-0 with 8:42 left in the third quarter after Graham added another 1-yard scoring run and got over the 1,000-yard mark for the season. Ronald Jones set the Panthers up on the USF 31 to start the drive after returning a punt for 39 yards.
K’Waun Williams came down with Floyd’s third interception at the 50 about a minute after Graham’s score and Pitt went ahead, 27-0, with a 2-yard touchdown reception by J.P. Holtz with 3:46 remaining in the quarter. Floyd finished 12-for-25 for 93 yards.
“We just couldn’t get anything going from an offensive standpoint. It made for a long night,” Holtz said.
Senior Maikon Bonani added to his already impressive college resume by making a 25-yard field goal to get the Bulls on the scoreboard with 9:41 remaining in the game.
Other seniors honored Saturday night were B.J. Daniels, Lindsey Lamar, Demetris Murray, Cory Grissom, Mike Lanaris, Evan Landi, George Baker, Chris Breit, David Aristil, Justin Brockhaus-Kann, Damien Edwards, Danous Estenor, Spencer Cavalieri, Jeff Hawkins, Kalin Hall, Colton Hudson, Mike Jeune, Jon Lejiste, Victor Marc, Mark Popek, Andreas Shields and Ernie Tabuteau.
“You certainly would like for them to go out with a win under their belts,” Holtz said.