TAMPA - With about 90 seconds left to play Saturday at Raymond James Stadium, it looked as though the South Florida Bulls were going to get their first Big East win of the season.
Instead, the Bulls headed to the locker room with the first 0-3 conference start in program history.
Cincinnati quarterback Zach Collaros rallied the visiting Bearcats to a 37-34 victory in front of an announced crowd of 44,248, scoring the winning touchdown on a 2-yard run with 12 seconds remaining.
The winning drive covered 70 yards in seven plays and came just 75 seconds after USF quarterback B.J. Daniels threw a 10-yard scoring pass to receiver Andre Davis that put the Bulls ahead 34-30 with 1:27 left to play.
"It was an up-and-down, gut-wrenching feeling," Daniels said of the emotional swing over the final 90 seconds. "It definitely didn't feel good."
USF now has lost three straight following a 4-0 start and the latest loss almost certainly ends any hope for the Bulls in the Big East championship race, even after the door had been cracked open with losses Friday night by West Virginia and Rutgers.
"We had an opportunity to step back into the race with the two losses (Friday) night," USF coach Skip Holtz said, "but right now I'm probably thinking a lot more about the missed opportunities today than I am in the big picture. The opportunities that we had that we couldn't capitalize on, on either side of the ball."
Behind a career-best passing day from Daniels (31 of 48 for a school-record 409 yards, three touchdowns and one interception), USF's offense totaled 495 yards and produced seven more points Saturday than it had in previous losses to Pittsburgh and Connecticut combined, but the Bulls could have had more.
Three times USF reached the red zone and settled for field goal attempts, including a pair of drives in the second quarter that advanced inside the Cincinnati 5-yard line.
The first of those drives ended without the kick even getting off the ground when holder Justin Brockhaus-Kann couldn't corral the snap and the Bearcats recovered the loose ball for one of four Bulls turnovers. The second ended with a made field goal on the final play of the half that tied the game at 10, but it was the previous play — or, lack of one — that was a bit of a head-scratcher.
USF was at the 2-yard line with 28 seconds remaining and called a pass play, though Daniels tucked the ball and opted to run. After being stopped for no gain, Daniels said Cincinnati defenders would not allow him to get to his feet. When he finally got up there were still about 15 seconds remaining, but Holtz opted not to use the team's final timeout to run another play. Instead, he let the clock wind down to 3 seconds before calling time and sending out the field goal unit.
"I wanted three points. I only had one timeout left and I certainly didn't want to take it there and then maybe take a sack or have a lost yardage play," Holtz said. "It's 10-7, and I said if we come out with a field goal at this point, that needs to be the worst thing that happens to us is a 10-10 tie at halftime."
On the other red zone possession, a third-quarter drive that also resulted in a Bonani field goal, the Bulls twice had touchdown runs by Daniels negated by holding penalties. USF was penalized 10 times for 109 yards, both highs for a Holtz-led USF team.
"It's definitely tough," Daniels said of having the touchdown runs erased. "We're taking two blows on one drive, and it's hard to come back from that."
Cincinnati found a way to come back despite entering the fourth quarter trailing 27-17. Collaros (25-of-41 for 389 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions) accounted for three touchdowns in the final 15 minutes, two rushing and a 30-yard scoring pass to Alex Chisum that gave the Bearcats a 30-27 lead with 9:13 left.
And after watching Daniels lead USF on 83-yard touchdown drive to make it a 34-30 game, Collaros worked quickly to push the Bearcats (6-1, 2-0) to the top of the league standings.
He hit on passes of 12 and 33 yards to Kenbrell Thompkins to get Cincinnati into USF territory, then found Anthony McClung for 21 yards to the USF 6. Then, one play after Tyson Butler was flagged for pass interference in the end zone to place the ball at the 2, Collaros sprinted through the heart of the Bulls' defense for the winning score.
"It's very frustrating. We didn't execute when it was time to," linebacker Sam Barrington said. "We've got to do better in that situation. I feel like the coaches put us in a great situation. We've just got to do better.
"You harp on being a great defense and harp on not letting things like that happen. For it to happen is very disappointing."
Cincinnati tops Bulls in final seconds