TAMPA - Once again, the University of South Florida Bulls were thrown for a loss. And it happened in disturbingly familiar fashion.
“If we could just get out of our own way, I think we’d be so much better,’’ USF coach Willie Taggart said.
The wounds were mostly self-inflicted Saturday night, when the high-flying SMU Mustangs were largely thwarted by the USF defense, but still managed a 16-6 victory against the penalty-plagued Bulls at Raymond James Stadium.
Actual attendance, according to the Tampa Sports Authority, was 14,326.
USF (2-8, 2-4 American Athletic Conference) had 13 penalties for 107 yards, while SMU (5-5, 4-2) was flagged just once for 5 yards.
“I said that to them (officials) on the field,’’ Taggart said. “Somebody write about that. I’m not saying we didn’t do things wrong, but geez, some of them I didn’t agree with. That’s how it goes.’’
With USF approaching the first home shutout in the program’s 17-season history, a 73-yard pass from freshman quarterback Mike White to junior wide receiver Andre Davis put the Bulls in the red zone. Two plays later, it was first-and-goal at the SMU 2-yard line.
Then, the inexplicable.
USF committed three consecutive penalties — false-start infractions by offensive tackle Quinterrius Eatmon and White (when he pulled away too quickly), then an illegal motion by Davis — and it was first-and-goal at the 17.
White threw four straight incompletions.
And that was that.
“Frustrating,’’ junior center Austin Reiter said. “That’s a lack of mental focus.’’
“We just kept beating ourselves,’’ said Davis, who had five catches for 110 yards, becoming the first USF player with three consecutive 100-yard receiving games.
USF’s offense managed just 259 yards against SMU’s 98th-ranked defense, while White (19 of 34, 217 yards, two interceptions) struggled to maintain consistency. But USF’s defense played superbly, limiting the Mustangs to 280 yards (201 yards below their average).
Late in the second quarter, while sliding awkwardly during a scramble, SMU senior quarterback Garrett Gilbert suffered a left knee sprain, ending his evening. With the nation’s total offense leader sidelined, SMU turned to freshman backup Neal Burcham, who had thrown just five passes all season.
Burcham guided a pair of third-quarter touchdown drives, including a 37-yard pass to Der’rikk Thompson on fourth-and-1, putting SMU up 16-0. Still, it was a winning effort by USF’s defense.
For USF’s offense?
Not so much.
USF’s only score was a 50-yard punt return from Chris Dunkley with 2:24 remaining. Still, it was the fifth time this season the Bulls were held without an offensive touchdown.
The Bulls, who have dropped four straight games and must win on the road at UCF (Friday) or Rutgers (Dec. 7) to avoid the worst record in school history, finished 1-6 at home. It’s the first time USF failed to win at least two home games in a season.
“We just can’t play well from behind,’’ Davis said.
“We’ve got to find a way to make some plays, especially early,’’ Taggart said.
USF seemingly found that during the first quarter when senior running back Marcus Shaw broke loose on a 76-yard run before being dragged down at the SMU 20. But it was called back on a holding penalty by Eatmon.
USF rushed for only 42 yards (and a 1.9-yard average). The Bulls have gone 27 consecutive quarters without scoring a rushing touchdown.
“We’ve got to be able to run the football,’’ Taggart said. “We’ve got to help a young freshman quarterback out by establishing the run. It’s something we haven’t done.’’
What USF has done — over and over again — is make mistakes.
“It’s crazy,’’ Davis said. “Just crazy. If we want to win, we’ve got to stop stopping ourselves.’’