by Tom Zebold
USF Senior Writer
TAMPA - The Bulls' hopes of keeping a long bowl game streak alive slipped right through their fingers on Thursday night.
B.J. Daniels lost a fumble in West Virginia territory on a potential go-ahead drive in the fourth quarter and the No. 23 Mountaineers won a share of the Big East title with Tyler Bitancurt's 28-yard field goal in the final seconds of a 30-27 victory over the Bulls.
USF (5-7) needed a win to become bowl eligible and failed to get to a postseason game for the first time in seven seasons. That feeling isn't familiar to the Bulls, but the cause of it certainly is after the team lost five games by six points or less this season.
"Wins were elusive for us in a lot of different ways," head coach Skip Holtz said.
Like others before, a victory was well within reach for the Bulls.
JaQuez Jenkins' 24-yard interception return for a touchdown gave USF a 27-20 lead with 9:49 to play in the third quarter.
"He guessed right big-time," defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said.
West Virginia (9-3, 5-2) answered back with a 5-yard touchdown run by Dustin Garrison almost 6 minutes later, but USF had the ball with a chance to put it away late.
The Bulls drove to the West Virginia 28 with less than 4 minutes left and tried to run down the clock with the Mountaineers out of timeouts. Daniels scrambled for two yards, but lost the football and West Virginia drove down the field for the winning points on senior night with 41,743 fans in the stands at Raymond James Stadium.
"You can't ask this team to play with any more passion or heart," Holtz said.
"I've had teams in my past with better records. I don't know if I've had a team that has probably taught me more about handling adversity, perseverance and having a positive attitude."
Thursday's game also started with a lot of action, but few points between two teams with productive offenses.
West Virginia's best chance at a score in the first quarter hit the right upright when Bitancurt missed a 38-yard field goal attempt with 1:20 remaining on the clock.
USF's fortunes weren't any better at the start of the second quarter when Maikon Bonani's rugby style punt attempt was blocked by Willie Milhouse to start the Mountaineers at the Bulls' 5-yard line. West Virginia grabbed a 3-0 lead on a 23-yard field goal by Bitancurt after getting to the USF 1. The Mountaineers initially tried to go for it on fourth down, but a false start penalty brought out the kicking team.
The Bulls faced a 10-0 deficit with 8:20 left before the break after a Daniels interception turned into a 52-yard return by Pat Miller. Daniels had missed last week's game with a shoulder injury and it took him a little while to get going through the air.
"I felt alright, not 100 percent," he said. "I tried to do what I could."
USF was down, but certainly not out and proved it on its next drive.
Daniels threw a 20-yard scoring pass in the left corner of the end zone to receiver Sterling Griffin, who managed to get one foot down before hitting the turf with 5:13 to play in the half. Griffin had been out the lineup for four games because of a leg injury and came back strong, leading the Bulls at the half with three receptions for 37 yards.
"It felt real good because when I got hurt they said I'd be done for the season, maybe a bowl game. I just worked so hard to get back," Griffin said.
The touchdown was set up by highlight-reel plays by three different Bulls.
Receiver Lindsey Lamar took a pitch on third-and-4 at the USF 26, turned the corner while making defenders miss on the way to a 22-yard gain.
Tight end Evan Landi came up big on another third down when he held onto a pass in triple coverage for a 20-yard gain that got the Bulls to the Mountaineers' 32. Receiver Victor Marc also had a 15-yard catch that moved USF inside the red zone.
West Virginia added a 42-yard Bitancurt field goal to head into the locker room with a 13-7 lead, but its high-powered offense was kept under control in the first half. The Bulls outgained the Mountaineers, 195-138, while all of West Virginia's points came on defense and special teams. West Virginia struggled on third down, going 2-for-9, and was forced to punt three times.
West Virginia threatened to extend its lead right after the half until linebacker Sam Barrington stripped Devon Brown at the end of a 28-yard reception and Mike Lanaris recovered the fumble at the Bulls' 2-yard line.
The turnover sparked the USF offense, especially its running game.
Scott broke off a 32-yard run to midfield and Daniels followed with a 16-yard scramble down to the West Virginia 34. Bonani's 32-yard field goal cut the Mountaineers' lead down to 13-10 with a 10:26 to play in the third quarter.
Scott exited the game during the drive with an injury and finished with 14 carries for 92 yards.
The momentum was short-lived for USF, however, when Tavon Austin returned the ensuing kickoff 90 yards for a score. It was Austin's second kick return for a touchdown this season after he went 100 yards in the season opener against Marshall.
West Virginia had the ball with another chance to score more than midway through the third quarter when USF's defense stepped up again.
Geno Smith's pass to Stedman Bailey bounced into the hands of diving Quenton Washington, who came up with the turnover at the Mountaineers' 32.
It marked Washington's second-career interception and was a shining moment for the cornerback who was one of 17 seniors honored before their final home game.
USF was right back in it 12 plays later when Bonani hit a 20-yard field goal with 1:42 remaining in the third quarter.
It was all tied up by the 10:01 mark in the fourth quarter when Daniels scored from 1 yard out on a quarterback keeper. It capped off a 15-play, 76-yard drive that took almost 5 minutes off the clock and put USF in position to spoil West Virginia's BCS bowl game chances.
One play from scrimmage later, Jenkins stepped in front of a Smith pass and went into the end zone untouched to give the Bulls their first lead of the game just 12 seconds after Daniels' score.
West Virginia was stunned, but regained its footing almost 5 minutes later when it drove 77 yards and tied the game back up on the run by Garrison.
It only took USF a kickoff to get back into Mountaineer territory, thanks to Lamar's 53-yard return to the 41. The Bulls' hopes of taking a lead were dashed four plays later when Daniels' lost a fumble on a run at the West Virginia 26.
"We were in position to win, potentially run the clock out and win on a field goal. It's on my mind," Daniels said.