The turnovers the defense usually creates couldn't be found, with three South Florida fumbles all recovered by the Bulls, including the game-winner by right tackle Jacob Sims in the end zone with 9:33 to play.
But the coup de gras was a screen pass gone awry, a third-and-long attempt from Rutgers' own end zone late in the third quarter that resulted in a safety, and helped propel South Florida to a 28-27 win Wednesday in front of 39,468 at Raymond James Stadium.
The Scarlet Knights' (4-4, 1-2 Big East) second straight loss puts their chances of a sixth straight bowl berth in serious jeopardy while South Florida (5-3, 2-1) remains in the Big East race. "Not even thinking of it," Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said.
Despite moving to a quick passing game with short drops to ease the offensive line's pass-protection burden, the Scarlet Knights still managed only 238 yards of offense. Freshman quarterback Chas Dodd was 19 of 22 for 139 yards and was sacked twice.
Freshman receiver Jeremy Deering, playing in his hometown five days after his mother died after a long illness, gained 69 yards on nine carries.
Rutgers also had a pair of drives stall because of false starts deep in South Florida territory, with San San Te field goals capping each one.
Mason Robinson also scored on a 60-yard punt return, but the inability to protect Dodd surfaced at the worst time and sealed the defeat.
"Honestly, I wasn't ready for it," Dodd said. "I thought we were going to be able to pick it up or I was going to have a little more time than I did."
Rutgers' offense also gave a pair of points when Young was tackled in the end zone on a screen pass on a third-and-21 from its own 4-yard line. It pulled USF within 24-22 with 1:02 to play in the third quarter.
Te gave Rutgers a 27-22 lead with 12 minutes remaining on a 30-yard field goal, but it took USF only 2:27 to take the lead. A 31-yard pass to tight end Andreas Shields and a 21-yard run by Mo Plancher quickly moved the ball to the 15-yard line, and when Plancher fumbled on a second down run from the 2, Sims recovered in the end zone.
"It's obviously very, very frustrating because they made a mistake and we didn't capitalize on it," Rutgers middle linebacker Steve Beauharnais said. "I think there was some good tackling out there, but I know I missed two on B.J. (Daniels). I thought there was some real good contact out there, but other times …there was poor tackling."