USF faces must win

This season was supposed to be different. This was the year USF would show everyone it should no longer be considered a dark horse to win the conference, but a legitimate contender.

Instead, the same old storyline has resurfaced. USF is a team that starts off fast, but then swoons.

That makes its home game Saturday against Cincinnati about as close to a must win as you can get. A 4-0 start that featured a win over Notre Dame and a Top 25 ranking has given way to two straight losses. The Bulls are 0-2 in conference and barely clinging to hopes of winning their first conference title.

Nobody has ever won the Big East championship with three conference losses. USF has never won more than four games in the Big East. Winning out is not impossible. But history certainly is stacked against the Bulls.

"If you want to continue to compete for a championship it is a quote unquote must win," coach Skip Holtz said. "Starting at 0-3 you may be able to get back into a competitive race at 4-3 if you run the table the rest of the way, but I would think it would be difficult to win the conference with three losses when you look at some of the teams out there and the way they're playing right now."

Last season proved to be the only time USF began the year slowly. After starting 2-3, the Bulls rebounded to make it to a bowl game. Bulls fans may want to hide their eyes, but here is what has happened from 2005-09 after strong starts:

  • 2009: Opened 5-0, then lost three of four and finished 3-4 in league play.

  • 2008: Opened 5-0, then lost four of five and finished 2-5 in league play -- its worst ever Big East record.

  • 2007: Opened 6-0 and got to No. 2 in the nation before losing three straight.

  • 2006: Opened 3-0 before losing two straight.

  • 2005: Opened 3-1 before losing two straight and ending the season with three straight losses.

What has been particularly frustrating about this season is the way the Bulls have lost. In a 44-17 defeat to Pitt, the defense seemed completely out of position, missed tackles and were surprised with the way Tino Sunseri ran out of the pocket.

Last week against UConn, the Bulls had four turnovers and failed to get any points in five trips inside the UConn 35-yard line. The defense played much better, but it was the offense that let the team down. Penalties also were huge -- USF had nine of them, the most under Holtz.

USF began the season so well in the all-important turnover battle. Its five takeaways played a huge role in a win over Notre Dame. But in the two conference games, the Bulls are minus-3 in that area. Maybe even most galling -- USF has lost to two teams with losing records. If the Bulls want to run the table, they still have the top half of the league left to play.

"I think there's urgency, frustration," Holtz said. "This is a very committed football team. We're improving in a lot of areas, improving defensively, the way we're running the ball. We're making strides and we're getting better. They have great work habits and a great attitude. Right now everybody is scratching their heads a little bit: 'What do we need to do win?'

"So many of the problems we had are self-inflicted, but at the same time the attitude of the team is they just want to be good and they're willing to work extremely hard to do it. The only way they know how to do that is to go to practice, work hard and eliminate some of the things that have prevented us from winning the last two weeks."