South Florida began this season looking like a championship team. Now it’s in danger of missing a bowl game for the first time since 2004.
Following a 34-24 Big East loss to Louisville on Friday, Bulls coach Skip Holtz said he knows who to blame first – himself.
”I’m the head coach, that’s where it starts and that’s where it stops,” said Holtz, whose Bulls (5-6, 1-5) opened with a victory at Notre Dame en route to a 4-0 start, but have dropped six of their last seven games. ”I’ve got to do a better job of holding our staff to a higher standard and our staff has to do a better job of holding our players to a higher standard.
”I take it personal. We’ve come close, but we haven’t done a good enough job.”
The Bulls played the entire game with sophomore quarterback Bobby Eveld, a former walk-on, because of a shoulder injury to starter B.J. Daniels.
Eveld (20 of 35 for 210 yards) helped South Florida take a two-touchdown lead late in the first half. But Louisville (7-5, 5-2) came back, getting three touchdown passes from freshman quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, to clinch a share of the Big East championship.
Louisville coach Charlie Strong said he didn’t get frustrated by the first-half deficit. Instead, he emphasized a simple message.
”We were beating ourselves, but I told them, `Just keep playing and good things will happen,’ `’ Strong said.
Bridgewater and freshman wide receiver DeVante Parker were the catalysts as Louisville won at South Florida for the first time ever.
”That’s the reason I came to the University of Louisville – to win championships,” Bridgewater said. ”Though people outside the university may have counted us out, right now it’s all about finishing.”
Parker had a 17-yard scoring reception in the back of the end zone with 13 seconds to play in the half and a 10-yarder that put the Cardinals ahead to stay with 9:38 remaining.
Bridgewater, who finished 19 of 28 for 241 yards, hit Eli Rogers for a 30-yard completion on third-and-5 early in the nine-play, 57-yard go-ahead drive. Dominique Brown rumbled for a 3-yard gain on fourth-and-1 from the South Florida 13-yard line, setting up the final Bridgewater-to-Parker connection.
The Cardinals put the game away with 4:12 remaining on Brown’s 9-yard run.
Louisville, which began the season 2-4 before winning five of its last six regular-season games, can capture the Big East’s berth in a Bowl Championship Series game if Cincinnati is defeated one more time and Friday night’s winner between Pittsburgh and West Virginia loses next week.
”It’s all about November, and I always tell them, `Remember November, today not tomorrow,’ and they just competed and competed,” Strong said. ”We took care of our business, so now we can watch everyone else play. Now we get to play on.
”At 2-4, I said, `There’s no way (to win a championship).’ I was just trying to figure out how we were going to win. This team has had adversity all year long. They’ve been able to handle it.”
South Florida (5-6, 1-5) needs a victory in Thursday’s regular-season finale against West Virginia to qualify for its seventh consecutive bowl appearance.
”It’s really frustrating to have been as close as we’ve been,” Holtz said. ”I thought Teddy Bridgewater played an excellent game, but I also thought that defensively we were poor. You can’t let that many guys run uncontested on the back end. We made it look easier for them than it should’ve been.”
Nothing has been easy for Louisville when it comes to the state of Florida. The Cardinals snapped a 16-game losing streak for regular-season games played in the state, dating to 1972, which included four consecutive losses at South Florida.
”We talked about it and we knew we were 0-4 here,” Strong said. ”We knew we had to come down here and play well.”
”Everyone knows Coach Strong is a stat guy, and all week he mentioned that we’ve never won a game down here and the average margin of victory is 21 points,” Bridgewater said. ”Things like that motivate a team. It motivated us.”
The Cardinals took a 20-17 lead with 2:40 remaining in the third quarter on Bridgewater’s 18-yard pass to tight end Josh Chichester on third-and-11.
South Florida struck back quickly when Lindsey Lamar went 62 yards with the ensuing kickoff. On the first play from scrimmage, Eveld pitched to Demetris Murray, who stopped and flicked a left-handed 37-yard halfback-option pass to Deonte Welch, giving South Florida a 24-20 advantage.
From there, though, Louisville took command of the game by rallying and by limiting South Florida to just one first down in its next four possessions.
South Florida, largely capitalizing on Louisville mistakes, took a 17-10 lead into halftime.
The Bulls went ahead 7-3 on Eveld’s 35-yard pass to Lamar on fourth-and-3. Initially, South Florida seemed prepared for a punt, then shifted its offensive players onto the field. Eveld found a wide-open Lamar, who drifted behind safety Hakeem Smith down the left sideline.
South Florida stalled on its next drive, but on fourth-and-17 from the Bulls’ 37-yard line, Louisville’s Mike Evans roughed punter Justin Brockhaus-Kann, providing new life. Maikon Bonani completed the nine-play, 34-yard drive with a 40-yard field goal.
Louisville, looking for the equalizer, got a 19-yard pass from Bridgewater to running back Jarel McGriff-Culver to the South Florida 41, but strong safety Jon Lejiste rammed the ball loose with a jarring hit and recovered the fumble.
South Florida then mounted a 13-play, 59-yard drive, culminating in Murray’s 1-yard run on third-and-goal to provide a 17-3 advantage with 35 seconds remaining in the half. On fourth-and-1 from the Louisville 35, wide receiver Victor Marc took a snap at quarterback and rushed for 4 yards.
Trying to prevent a last-second score, South Florida squibbed the kickoff, but Senorise Perry still rumbled for a 49-yard return before being pushed out of bounds at the Bulls’ 25-yard line. Two plays later, Bridgewater found Parker for a 17-yard score in the back of the end zone, cutting South Florida’s advantage to 17-10.
”That kickoff return (by Perry) was huge,” Bridgewater said. ”We were killing ourselves early in the game with penalties and just not finishing. For him to get a return like that, he just broke it loose. It was just what we needed and it got us started.”