In fact, for the University of South Florida Bulls, it was another Thursday nightmare.
The Rutgers Scarlet Knights powered past mistake-prone USF 23-13 before an announced crowd of 44,219 at Raymond James Stadium, marking the third straight season of dropping the Big East Conference opener in the Skip Holtz era.
"I’m a frustrated coach,’’ said Holtz, who decried USF’s four turnovers and its defensive inability to get off the field on third down.
The Bulls couldn’t run (just 95 yards rushing on 29 attempts) and they couldn’t hide (Rutgers dominated the time of possession, 38:21 to 21:26). Dating back to 2010, USF has lost nine of its last 10 Big East games.
Still, the game was tied with less than three minutes remaining.
Rutgers, which gained 424 yards, essentially clinched it on Kyle Federico’s 22-yard field goal, a low kick that kissed off the left upright, with 2:48 remaining to give the Scarlet Knights a 16-13 lead. It was set up by a 46-yard pass from Gary Nova to Tim Wright (nine catches for 135 yards), who ran free down the left side after a stumble in the USF secondary.
USF (2-1, 0-1) failed to get a first down on its next possession. After a 7-yard pass to Andre Davis, USF senior quarterback B.J. Daniels (15 of 33, 242 yards, three interceptions) threw three straight incompletions, including a sideline attempt to Terrence Mitchell on fourth-and-7 with 2:12 remaining.
With USF’s weary defense trying to force a turnover, Rutgers sophomore running back Jawan Jamison added a resounding punctuation mark on a 41-yard touchdown run with 1:19 remaining. Jamison finished with 151 yards on 41 carries.
"I thought B.J. competed his tail off without much of a running game in front of him,’’ Holtz said. "Rutgers is a very physical team. With their physical style and aggressiveness up front, I don’t think we matched with our offensive line.’’
Daniels (15 carries for 68 yards) was USF’s leading rusher. Demetris Murray had 27 yards on nine carries, including a 1-yard touchdown run that tied the game with 9:23 remaining. Lindsey Lamar had just 1 yard on four carries.
The Bulls fell to 0-9 in ESPN Thursday night games and also fell victim to a litany of mistakes. The Bulls committed four turnovers, allowing the Scarlet Knights (3-0, 1-0) to rally from a 6-0 first-quarter deficit.
The Bulls were prepared to battle fatigue after Saturday’s 32-31 victory at Nevada. USF was back on Sunday at 3 a.m. after the cross-country odyssey. But Rutgers imposed its will with an unyielding defense and consistent running game, making the task even more difficult.
"It’s one game, but we didn’t want to start 0-1 in the conference,’’ Daniels said. "We don’t make any excuses. We weren’t good enough. Last week (the trip to Nevada) doesn’t have anything to do with this week.’’
"It’s a lack of execution and we didn’t get guys in the right spots,’’ USF senior linebacker Sam Barrington said.
USF is 4-11 in Big East games (1-7 at home) under Holtz.
Rutgers took the lead for good, 13-6, on Nova’s 6-yard pass to Mark Harrison with seven minutes remaining in the third quarter. Harrison caught it near the ground and it initially looked like a trap, but replay upheld the reception.
The seven-play touchdown drive was set up when Rutgers linebacker Jamal Merrell intercepted Daniels at the USF 30-yard line, after the pass glanced off Murray’s hands.
USF, trailing for the first time all night, then mounted a drive of its own that could’ve tied the game. Daniels completed three passes in the sequence, including a 16-yarder to Derrick Hopkins on third-and-8.
With second-and-goal from the Rutgers’ 5-yard line, Daniels looked for tight end Evan Landi on a quick slant. The ball glanced off Landi’s hands, then his leg and Rutgers defensive back Wayne Warren plucked it out of the air and intercepted in the end zone.
USF offensive coordinator Todd Fitch called it a "catchable ball’’ and Holtz said it’s inexcusable to not catch a pass and let it fly up in the air (instead of batting it down to avoid an interception).
USF made good on its tying opportunity with its next drive, which covered 68 yards in seven plays. Back-to-back defensive offsides penalties against Rutgers gave USF a first down at the Scarlet Knights’ 33-yard line.
Daniels then went deep to the left corner, where Rutgers defensive back Marcus Cooper appeared to be tracking an interception. But the ball went through Cooper’s hands and into the waiting arms of Hopkins for a 32-yard play. Murray scored from the 1 on the next play and USF had tied it with 9:23 remaining.
But that merely set up Rutgers for the victory and more USF frustration.
In a 13-13 game, USF regained possession with 6:33 remaining. The Bulls couldn’t go anywhere, though. Daniels served up three straight incompletions, leaving USF with a three-and-out, then Rutgers drove for the go-ahead field goal.
"It’s a long season,’’ Mitchell said. "One game is not going to deter the rest of our season.’’
"You don’t let 1-0 get any bigger than it is and the same is true for 0-1,’’ Holtz said. "You don’t let a win this early make your season. You don’t let a loss this early take away from the season you can have. We’re a work in progress and there are quite a few things we can correct on.’’
USF faces Ball State, a Mid-American Conference team, on the road on Sept. 22. The Bulls then play a high-profile home game against Florida State on Sept. 29 before resuming Big East play at Temple on Oct. 6.