PISCATAWAY, N.J. — It was another loss for the University of South Florida Bulls – a defeat that featured all the flawed facets of their forgettable season – and you’d think it was time to put everything behind and move forward.
Not for senior middle linebacker DeDe Lattimore.
Following USF’s 31-6 loss against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights on Saturday night at High Point Solutions Stadium, Lattimore wanted to linger.
“So many emotions, so many emotions,’’ said Lattimore, tearing up.
Lattimore had the most productive game of his career with 18 tackles, one off the school record, and a forced fumble. With the kickoff temperature at 33 degrees, he warmed up without a shirt. “I did that for Rutgers,’’ he said. “To show them the weather didn’t matter.’’
But USF’s mistakes, they did matter. And despite Lattimore’s best effort – along with spirited play from others on USF’s defense – it wasn’t nearly enough.
Rutgers (6-6, 3-5) became bowl eligible and is expected to accept an invitation to the Dec. 28 Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium, where the Scarlet Knights will oppose Notre Dame.
Meanwhile, Willie Taggart’s first year finally came to a merciful end. The Bulls (2-10, 2-6 American Athletic Conference) finished with a six-game losing streak, which tied a program record. It was the worst football season in USF’s 17-season history.
The biggest culprit was USF’s offense.
“We’ve got to fix this offense,’’ Taggart said. “It’s not an offense. It’s just off.’’
For the sixth time this season, USF failed to score an offensive touchdown. Overall, USF finished with just 11 offensive touchdowns, a national low.
Afterward, freshman quarterback Mike White, who made his fifth start, took to Twitter and apologized to USF fans for the offense’s season-long poor performance.
White was 14 of 31 for 141 yards, but he had about 10 passes dropped by receivers. The Bulls managed just 151 yards and had a season-low 10 yards rushing, along with only eight first downs.
The Bulls entered the red zone just twice and both times they were forced to settle for field goals by junior place-kicker Marvin Kloss, who connected from 24 and 29 yards.
Penalties again were huge.
After collecting 11 infractions for 99 yards against Rutgers, USF finished with 102 penalties. Baylor, with a bowl game remaining to play, has 103.
USF’s most crucial penalty occurred in the first quarter with Rutgers leading 7-0.
The Bulls seemingly got a huge break when Chas Dodd’s pass was intercepted at the USF 7-yard line by senior cornerback Brandon Salinas, who raced 57 yards down the right sideline and was one block away from scoring.
The electrifying play was short-circuited by a roughing-the-passer penalty on senior defensive tackle Luke Sager.
Rutgers regained possession at the USF 12. And from there, on the next play, Dodd found Andre Patton for a touchdown.
Once again, it was game, set and overmatched.
“That was a huge momentum play,’’ Taggart said.
USF’s defense, which largely carried the team during the season’s second half, was not able to get off the field nearly enough. Running back Paul James rushed for 113 yards and two touchdowns. Rutgers gained 357 yards – the most allowed by USF since Houston got 388 on Halloween night – and amassed 25 first downs.
Lattimore and sophomore defensive end Aaron Lynch (six tackles, two sacks, four tackles for a loss) each had monster games. Taggart said he expected Lynch, a transfer from Notre Dame who completed his first season at USF, to test the waters for the NFL draft, but wasn’t certain whether he was definitively gone.
If Lynch comes back, he will be among 15 returning starters, a point of optimism for the Bulls. But Taggart knows there’s much work to be done.
“We’ve got to fix everything,’’ Taggart said. “We’ve got to evaluate everything we do, especially this offense. We’re recruiting guys to take the current guys’ jobs. That’s the way it will always be around here.
“We need more playmakers on this team. We’ll understand what we do better. We’ll have another spring and Mike (White) will have another spring. We’ve got to get the right pieces in here and be a helluva lot better than we’ve shown.’’
Lattimore said he’s confident Taggart will get it right. “USF will be back on top, I guarantee that,’’ Lattimore said.
But Lattimore will be a spectator for that. His USF career is done, although it ended in spectacular individual fashion.
“We wanted to send the seniors out on the right note,’’ USF junior tight end Mike McFarland said. “It hurts. It hurts a lot.’’
And with that, McFarland found Lattimore. They shared a long embrace.
“I gave it everything I got and I wanted to leave my mark,’’ Lattimore said. “Now these guys just need to keep buying into Coach T. This was a transition. USF will be back.’’