TAMPA — South Florida coach Charlie Strong was emotional in his postgame press conference Saturday night.
Who could blame him? His team fought like the dickens only to come up short in an excruciating 20-17 loss to No. 17 Cincinnati at Raymond James Stadium.
The defeat dropped the Bulls to 4-6. They will have to win their final two games, at home against Memphis next Saturday and at UCF on Black Friday, to become bowl eligible.
“This one hurts and it hurts because we saw a great team effort tonight, just the way our guys came out and the energy they had and the way they played from start to finish,” said Strong, whose team is 2-4 in the American. “We had our opportunities and it was tough just because of the opportunities we had. It was a team loss and we have two games left and we have to get to a bowl game.”
It was at that point Strong became emotional, mentioning the team has to get ready face Memphis and UCF.
A late fourth-quarter sequence will not soon be forgotten, on either side, by the announced 29,112 in attendance. Spencer Shrader’s 33-yard field goal attempt clanged off the right upright with 2:07 remaining. The miss was the freshman’s fourth of the game — he was 1-for-5 — with the others from 50 (first quarter), 53 (2nd) and 43 yards (2nd as time expired).
The Bearcats (9-1/6-0) took over at their own 20 and after going 2-for-12 on third-down conversions, converted a 3rd-and-11 and a 3rd-and-10 to work their way into field-goal range. Sam Crosa’s 37-yard effort split the uprights putting UC in position to clinch the American East Division next week.
“It definitely stings,” said tight end Mitchell Wilcox. “We came so close. It was there for the taking. We knew we were going to be in a dogfight with this team coming in. We were able to have some success, but it just didn’t work out.”
It was there for the taking because USF outgained the Bearcats 217-46 in the opening half, but only had a 10-0 to show for it. A defense playing without injured linebacker and leading tackler Patrick Macon held UC to 278 yards, about 130 below its season average.
After Cincinnati came within 10-7 five minutes into the third quarter, the Bulls responded by going 75 yards on seven plays during the ensuing drive. It was a drive capped by Jordan McCloud’s four-yard touchdown pass to Wilcox that restored the 10-point lead.
A healthy McCloud completed 18-of-27 for 267 yards and no turnovers. Four of the redshirt freshmen’s completions accounted for 182 of his yards
The Bearcats tied it up early in the fourth quarter on a two-yard TD run by Michael Warren, who had a game-high 134 yards rushing.
After both teams punted twice, the Bulls pieced together an impressive 15-play, 82-yard drive to set up Shrader’s potential game-winning attempt.
It was not meant to be and Cincinnati cashed in on its attempt as the clock expired on the game and perhaps the season for the Bulls.