The undisciplined mistakes, the penalties, the poor defense … it's officially a broken record for the University of South Florida Bulls.
Following Saturday night's 31-27 gut-punch loss against the Ball State Cardinals, a non-juggernaut from the Mid-American Conference, the Bulls must now work to avoid becoming a broken team.
USF (2-2) faces No. 4 Florida State next Saturday at Raymond James Stadium.
"This one's over and we can't do anything about it,'' USF senior running back Demetris Murray said. "We've got to come out next week and play better or else we'll get run out of the stadium. It's that simple.''
The Bulls, on their heels throughout the game, seemed on the verge of a spirited comeback victory. Senior quarterback B.J. Daniels connected with running back Lindsey Lamar on a broken-field, weaving 29-yard touchdown pass, an invigorating moment on third-and-6 with 4:12 left.
But USF's beleaguered defense couldn't produce a stop — again.
The Cardinals (3-1) mounted a 75-yard drive (including a conversion on fourth-and-3) for the clinching score. On third-and-10 from USF's 19-yard line, Ball State quarterback Keith Wenning found Willie Snead in the left corner. Snead (11 receptions, 135 yards) cradled it with one hand, then dragged his left foot in bounds, after beating Kenneth Durden.
After playing man coverage on the first two downs, attempting to pressure Wenning, USF coach Skip Holtz conferred with first-year defensive coordinator Chris Cosh. They agreed to play a four-deep zone, trying to prevent a fade to the corner, and perhaps limit Ball State to a field-goal attempt.
Ball State promptly threw a fade pass to the corner — and scored.
"It was discouraging to watch our defense not be able to get off the field,'' Holtz said. "We had injuries in the secondary and a lot of youth on the field. Where I'm (most) discouraged is not being able to get off the field against the run with our front seven right now.''
It was a wasted effort for USF's offense, which picked up its pace considerably after the Bulls' loss against Rutgers in the Big East Conference opener.
USF gained 518 yards overall. Daniels was 19 of 30 for 312 yards and three touchdowns. As a team, the Bulls rushed for 209 yards. And they rallied from a 12-point deficit in the third quarter, eventually surging ahead with a 15-play, 99-yard touchdown drive.
Now all of those numbers are footnotes.
USF had one final attempt at pulling out the victory. Daniels drove the Bulls from their 13-yard line to the Ball State 28 with 11 seconds remaining. But Daniels and wide receiver Terrence Mitchell miscommunicated — Mitchell went over the top and Daniels threw to the flat, near the 10-yard line — and Cardinals cornerback Eric Patterson (of Plant High) sealed it with an interception.
"This goes back to a lot of the (close) losses we had last year,'' Holtz said. "We're not going to put our head in the sand. It's not like we're not competing. We're playing hard. I think we're doing that.
"We're not very disciplined. We're not getting things done to win games down the stretch. We had chances here, and in a game where one or two plays make the difference, it was our mistakes that were really crucial.''
Particularly galling were USF's penalties (11 for 112 yards) and its inability to hold Ball State on third down (the Cardinals converted eight of 13 third-down opportunities).
Wenning, who led Ball State's comeback victory last week at Indiana, was 24 of 36 for 244 yards and two touchdowns. He barely got his uniform dirty. He wasn't sacked. Linebacker Reshard Cliett was credited with USF's only quarterback hurry. Additionally, USF had zero tackles for a loss.
"It's not like there's a lack of talent,'' USF defensive tackle Luke Sager said "We're just killing ourselves. Whether it's penalties or one of us messing up, we have them third-and-long and we just don't have the discipline to get off the field.''
"We tried more pressures, tried to affect the quarterback more,'' Cosh said. "They were hitting the under routes, making some short throws, breaking some tackles.''
It didn't work against Ball State. It definitely won't work against Florida State.
"You don't accept complacency,'' USF linebacker Sam Barrington said. "You don't let this team feel sorry for itself. We have eight more games to go.''
But right now, it's a broken record. And it's not getting any easier.