By TOM ZEBOLD
USF Senior Writer
TAMPA – The end result wasn’t what they wanted, but the Bulls made head coach Skip Holtz a proud man on Saturday night.
USF hung with No. 4 Florida State most of the way in a 30-17 loss before a program record crowd of 69,383 at Raymond James Stadium. Quarterback B.J. Daniels rushed for 72 yards and two touchdowns, including a 3-yard scramble that made it a two-possession game early in the fourth quarter.
“I think we’re a work in progress, but we got better as a football team today,” Holtz said.
FSU (5-0) knew it could be a tight game heading into the series’ second installment and quarterback EJ Manuel helped the Seminoles come out on top with an efficient performance. The redshirt senior completed 19 of his 26 pass attempts for 242 yards, and his touchdown toss to Kevin Haplea gave FSU a 20-10 lead with 5:09 remaining in the third quarter.
“He didn’t put the ball in danger,” USF linebacker Sam Barrington said. “Their offense did a good job and they were very productive.”
Holtz said he was proud of USF’s intensity throughout the game and the Bulls set the tone early by scoring first.
USF (2-3) used the first drive of the game as a confidence builder by moving the ball 62 yards to set up a 32-yard field goal by Maikon Bonani. The Bulls went deep into FSU territory thanks to 25-yard reception by senior tight end Evan Landi.
USF’s lead didn’t last long, however, after Karlos Williams returned the ensuing kickoff 60 yards to set FSU up at the Bulls’ 37. Wide receiver Rashad Greene scored five plays later on a 10-yard end-around run.
The Seminoles took the 7-3 lead into the second quarter, but most of the movement on the field was done by USF’s offense. The Bulls outgained FSU, 144-85, in the opening quarter and went 3-for-5 on third down. FSU came into the game allowing opponents to convert only 19.7 percent of the time.
The Bulls’ defense came to play on a key third down in the second quarter that limited FSU to a 26-yard field goal by Dustin Hopkins with 5:45 to go before the half. FSU had a third-and-goal at the USF 3 when defensive tackle Luke Sager tackled Manuel for a loss in what originally had been ruled a fumble on a failed option pitch.
FSU went into the locker room with a 13-3 lead after Hopkins made good on his second chance inside of 2 minutes remaining. Hopkins missed a 48-yard attempt to end what appeared to be the Seminoles’ final drive of the half with 1:09 remaining.
Daniels gave FSU new life two plays later when his deep pass into tight coverage was intercepted by Xavier Rhodes. Manuel connected with Nick O’Leary three straight times for 30 yards and Hopkins split the uprights from 43 yards out with 3 seconds to go in the half.
“You can’t get in a game against a team like that and play conservative,” Holtz said. “In a game like this, you have to take some of those risks.”
What many thought would be a blowout by the start of the third quarter turned into a nail-biter after USF’s special teams came up huge when Tashon Whitehurst blocked a punt on the opening drive of the half. That set the Bulls up at the FSU 8 and Daniels scrambled into the end zone from 1 yard out three plays later to cut the Seminoles’ lead to 13-10.
“I just tried to make something happen for my team,” Whitehurst said.
The Seminoles started to breathe a little easier later in the third quarter when Manuel threw a 1-yard touchdown pass to Haplea, a former Penn State tight end, with 5:09 to play in the quarter. Manuel started the 63-yard play drive with a 32-yard pass to Greene that brought the Seminoles into USF territory.
Manuel’s accurate arm helped add to what would become a 17-point third quarter for FSU. The redshirt senior connected with Kenny Shaw for 47 yards to get the Seminoles down to the USF 32. FSU had a 23-10 lead with 34 seconds left in the quarter after Hopkins made his third field goal of the game from 23 yards out.
FSU’s defense got into the scoring act in the closing seconds of the third quarter in what proved to be the decisive play of the game. Cornellius Carradine sacked USF backup Matt Floyd and Christian Jones returned the fumble 12 yards for a touchdown while Daniels took the play off after absorbing a punishing hit.
“We had a mistake on that play. We didn’t chip the end and he came from off the edge,” Holtz said.
No matter the quarterback, USF had a hard time rediscovering the success it had in the opening quarter. The FSU defense gave up 18 total yards in the second quarter and 11 in the third quarter.
Daniels started the fourth quarter off in much better fashion by orchestrating a 73-yard scoring drive that ended with a 3-yard quarterback keeper with 12:37 remaining that cut USF’s deficit to 30-17. Daniels got the Bulls to the FSU 7 with a 37-yard pass to Derrick Hopkins.
The Bulls needed a stop and got it after FSU’s ensuing drive ended at its 31. Defensive tackles Cory Grissom and Elkino Watson sacked Manuel, but USF’s offense failed to use the momentum to its advantage and FSU got the ball back with 7:08 to play.
USF had another chance with less than 4 minutes to go, but the Bulls’ final drive ended with an incomplete pass by Daniels on a fourth-and-7 near midfield.
“I was really proud of the way this football team played tonight. (Aside from) a couple of plays, I thought they gave themselves a chance,” Holtz said.
The Bulls will try to get back on the winning track at Temple on Saturday, Oct. 6. Kickoff is set for noon in the start of a two-game road trip for USF.
“This team knows what it’s capable of doing. We just have to go out and play with that same amount of passion each and every week,” Holtz said.