When the Big East schedule was released for this season, many thought the University of South Florida's regular season finale with West Virginia would serve as a de facto conference title game.
The reality of the situation is much, much different.
A bowl game is still on the line for USF when the Mountaineers come to town for a nationally televised game on Thursday, but not one with BCS implications. After losing to Louisville, 34-24, in front of an announced crowd of 33,416 at Raymond James Stadium on Friday, the Bulls (5-6, 1-5) need a win just to make it to the postseason.
"We never thought we'd be in this position," senior cornerback Quenton Washington said. "It's a tough pill to swallow. It's something that we got ourselves into, so now it's something that we've got to handle."
But the mounting losses, now six in the last seven games for the Bulls, are becoming much tougher to handle. Junior running back Darrell Scott said after the game there was some bickering between players in the locker room, and the growing frustration also was clear on the face of Bulls coach Skip Holtz, who pointed the finger squarely at himself.
"I take it personal. I think that's why you get into coaching, because you think you make a difference," Holtz said. "I think it's too easy to point a finger at a player and say he didn't make a play, or he didn't do this or he didn't do that. When I keep saying we're four plays away from sitting here 9-1, I'm not pointing at the players … I'm four plays as a head coach from doing a better job.
"I think we've all got to accept responsibility and accountability, but it starts with me. I'm the head coach. That's where it starts, and I've got to do a better job of getting everybody on the same page."
Louisville freshman quarterback Teddy Bridgewater had a huge day, completing 19 of 28 passes for 241 yards and three touchdowns to help the Cardinals (7-5, 5-2) claim at least a share of the Big East title. Bridgewater was at his best on third down, helping Louisville convert 9 of 18 opportunities, but it was a fourth-down conversion in the fourth quarter that kept alive what proved to be the Cardinals' winning drive.
Down 24-20, Louisville faced fourth-and-1 at the USF 13-yard line. Running back Dominique Brown converted with a 3-yard run, and two plays later Bridgewater connected with a wide open DeVante Parker for an 11-yard score and 27-24 lead.
That was the first of two fourth-quarter touchdowns against a USF defense that again failed to protect leads at halftime (17-10) and after three quarters (24-20).
"Louisville was doing some good things on offense, but it wasn't nothing we haven't seen in practice," junior linebacker Sam Barrington said. "There's no reason that should happen."
While the Cardinals offense seemed to get more efficient as the game went on, the opposite was true for the Bulls, who were forced to go with sophomore backup Bobby Eveld at quarterback with junior B.J. Daniels sidelined by a right shoulder injury.
USF got key fourth-down conversions on two first-half scoring drives, including one in which Victor Marc converted on a run out of the wildcat formation. The second was capped by a 1-yard touchdown run by junior running back Demetris Murray that gave the Bulls a 17-3 lead with 35 seconds remaining, but 22 seconds later it was a different game.
USF attempted a squib kick, but running back Senorise Perry picked it up and rumbled 54 yards to the Bulls 25. Two plays later, Bridgewater connected with Parker on a 17-yard touchdown pass to make it a 17-10 game.
"Obviously that was a momentum shifter. We felt like we had the momentum going into the half but we didn't realize they were going to do that," Eveld said. "That one hurt a little bit, but at the same time the attitude in the locker room was still positive and everybody was willing to go out there and fight in the second half."
Things never got on track for the USF offense after the break. The Bulls had just 114 total yards in the second half. Take away the 44 yards the team's final drive and the 37 on a scoring pass from Murray to redshirt freshman receiver Deonte Welch, and USF mustered just 33 total yards over six series.
"It was a tough time," senior offensive lineman Jeremiah Warren said. "We weren't all on the same page like we needed to be."
And that seemed to carry over to after the game, something that had not previously been the case.
"We were kind of bickering a little bit amongst each other. It's just, you know how you point fingers for turnovers and stuff," Scott said of the postgame locker room scene. "A lot of these guys aren't used to this losing streak we're having and all these losses.
"It's new for all of us. We just need to know how to handle this, and I think we will. We'll come together."