After winning four games in September alone, including the 23-20 triumph over the Irish, the Bulls would win only one more time over the next two months, and their loss to West Virginia in the finale left them one win short of the necessary six victories for postseason eligibility.
The Bulls' 5-7 finish was their worst record since 2004, when they finished 4-7 in their last season in Conference USA. That also was the last time they didn't play in a bowl.
"It's been tough," junior quarterback B.J. Daniels said after the loss to the Mountaineers finished the season. "We were in the position to win a lot of games, but we weren't able to pull it off."
Indeed, three of the Bulls' losses came down to the final play. Rutgers kicked a field goal for the only score in overtime, this after the Bulls had missed a chip shot that would have won it in regulation. Both Miami and West Virginia kicked deciding field goals as time ran out in regulation.
Cincinnati scored the clinching touchdown with 12 seconds left after the Bulls had scored to take a four-point lead with 1:27 remaining.
The Bulls also lost by six points at Connecticut when their final drive ended 3 yards short of a first down deep in UConn territory. The Bulls had missed two field goals earlier.
Only in a 44-17 defeat at Pittsburgh, which was playing with a healthy Ray Graham at running back, and a 34-24 setback to Louisville in late November, when the Bulls didn't have Daniels available, did South Florida lose by more than one score.
The Bulls' lone conference win in seven outings came at Syracuse by a 37-17 score.
"I've had teams in my past with better records," coach Skip Holtz said. "I don't know that I've had a team that has taught me more through handling adversity and perseverance and having a positive attitude and just coming back week after week after week when we've been through so many losses that just take all the air out of your lungs."
On the bright side for the Bulls is the fact that of the 22 starters for the finale, 15 are due to return in 2012, including key figures like Daniels, running back Darrell Scott, versatile tight end Evan Landi, defensive end Ryne Giddins, linebackers DeDe Lattimore, Sam Barrington, and Michael Lanaris and defensive backs Kayvon Webster and Jon Lejiste.
"Oh, I am extremely encouraged, especially when you look at, I think, offensively we have pretty much every skill player returning," Holtz said. "Quarterback, tight end, wide receiver, running back -- we return a great nucleus.
"A lot of young guys played. I am extremely encouraged with the future."
GAME OF THE YEAR: South Florida 23, Notre Dame 20 -- Few expected coach Skip Holtz to leave his homecoming (he played for and served as an assistant under his dad when Lou was coaching the Irish) with a victory, but by coming up with five turnovers, the Bulls pulled off the upset. The Bulls cashed in on just one for points with CB Kayvon Webster returning a fumble 96 yards for their first touchdown. But two others, both interceptions, stopped Irish drives deep in USF territory, squashing Notre Dame's comeback hopes. While Holtz celebrated, Irish coach Brian Kelly was left red-faced.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR: QB B.J. Daniels -- LB DeDe Lattimore had an outstanding year, finishing fast over the last half of the season, but nobody meant more to the Bulls' success than Daniels. After showing potential but playing erratically at times his first two seasons, Daniels became a mature leader for the team. His injury that kept him out of the loss to Louisville and limited him against West Virginia had a tremendous impact on the season.
FAST FORWARD: The Bulls have the makings of a Big East contender in 2012. Yes, we've heard that before, but this would appear to be their best chance ever. They are due to lose only two starters on offense (LG Jeremiah Warren and C Chaz Hine) and welcome back not only Daniels but also WR Sterling Griffin, RBs Darrell Scott and Demtris Murray and TE Evan Landi. Griffin (four games) and Daniels (one) both missed time because of injuries for a second straight season and need to stay healthy. The defense gets back playmakers like DE Ryne Giddins (whose bonehead penalty was costly in the finale against West Virginia), LBs DeDe Lattimore, Sam Barrington and Michael Lanaris and SS Jon Lejiste. Plugging holes in the secondary will be the priority.
RECRUITING TRAIL: South Florida has about a dozen commitments from players who are rated high enough to make this a very successful class, assuming there are no defections. Included among the commitments are a pair of four-star prospects (Scout.com) who should help in the passing game: WR D'Vario Montgomery from Winter Park, Fla., and TE Sean Price from Citra, Fla.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I've said this before. We've probably now played about 2,000 plays in this season, and four of them, four plays, is what has made the difference." -- Coach Skip Holtz, on USF's close losses.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
PLAYERS TO WATCH IN 2012:
QB B.J. Daniels -- Daniels saw his completion percentage dip a bit near the end of the season, but for the most of the year, he was a 60 percent passer. He cut back his interceptions to seven against 13 touchdown passes after throwing 13 picks in 2010. He is the unquestioned leader on offense.
RB Darrell Scott -- The Colorado transfer gave the Bulls a power runner with good speed. Though injuries cost him one game, he still ended up as the team's leading rusher with 814 yards. If he stays healthy, he could easily be a 1,000-yard rusher in 2012.
LB DeDe Lattimore -- Lattimore earned a starting position as a redshirt freshman coming out of spring practice in 2010 and hasn't let go of the position since. He led the Bulls in tackles (94), tackles for loss (13.0), and sacks (7.0) in 2011.
DE Ryne Giddins -- Despite committing a personal-foul penalty that helped extend a key fourth-quarter scoring drive for West Virginia in the loss to the Mountaineers, Giddins showed he is ready to become the dominant defensive player he was expected to be when he arrived on campus. He had 5.5 sacks among his 44 tackles.
FS Jerrell Young -- Young is quick to the ball and was fourth on the team in tackles with 51, the most of any non-linebacker on the unit. A good hitter, he forced one fumble and had two interceptions in 2011, giving him five in his career.
OG Jeremiah Warren -- Listed at 6-foot-4, 329 pounds, Warren is a three-year starter who could get some consideration late in the draft or as a free agent.
--Sophomore WR Sterling Griffin, whose freshman season was cut short by injury in 2010, played in the finale against West Virginia after missing four games this season with a broken ankle. Griffin still led the Bulls in receiving with 43 receptions for 530 yards. He had three touchdown receptions, tying teammate Lindsey Lamar for the team lead in that category.
--Junior P Justin Brockhaus-Kann no doubt will face serious competition for his job in the spring. After averaging more than 40 yards per punt through USF's first three games, he began to slump, and his poor execution put the Bulls in tough spots over the second half of the season. He finished with a 36.3-yard average.
--Junior RB Darrell Scott injured his shoulder in the finale and couldn't return to the game. He finished the year with 814 rushing yards and recorded two games over the 100-yard mark.
--Junior QB B.J Daniels, who sat out the next-to-last game against Louisville after injuring his shoulder against Miami, went the distance against West Virginia. In 11 games, he completed 58.9 percent of his pass attempts with 13 touchdowns against seven interceptions.
--Sophomore LB DeDe Lattimore led the team in tackles with 94 stops ahead of junior LBs Michael Lanaris (87) and Sam Barrington (72). As a trio, they combined for 24 tackles for loss with 10.5 sacks.Click here for more info and to share your thoughts with other USF fans!