TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — South Florida coach Willie Taggart had a simple message for his seniors after a tough loss in their final home game.
“I apologized to those guys,” Taggart said after the Bulls were beat 16-6 by SMU on Saturday night.
“I told them I’ve been here for a year, but I feel like I’ve been knowing these guys forever. I feel like I let them down.”
Chris Dunkley had a 50-yard punt return touchdown late in the fourth quarter for USF (2-8, 2-4 American Athletic Conference), which has lost four straight. In addition to being ranked last in the AAC in total offense, averaging 263.7 yards per game, the Bulls were also last in scoring offense at just under 15 points per game.
On Saturday night, the Bulls were outgained 280-to-259, and failed to score an offensive touchdown for the fifth time this season.
“We’ll get there,” Taggart said. “We’re going through the process. We’re not where we want to be, but … we’re going to stick to it.”
The Bulls had 13 penalties for 103 yards.
“That’s extremely frustrating,” USF center Austin Reiter said. “It was a lack of mental focus.”
SMU was called for one 5-yard infraction.
Freshman backup quarterback Neal Burcham led two third-period scoring drives to help SMU overcome the loss of injured Garrett Gilbert.
Gilbert left with 1:21 to play in first half when he hurt his left knee while attempting to slide while running the football and was assisted off the field. Gilbert, who was 19-for-23 for 138 yards and one interception, was replaced by Burcham.
“The doctor thinks he just has a sprain, so that’s good,” SMU coach June Jones said. “So it just depends on how long it will be before he can support it and throw off of it. I think that he’ll be OK.”
Gilbert entered the game leading the nation in total offense at 405.7 yards per game. Over his previous five games, the senior was even more productive, averaging 459 yards with 17 touchdowns and just one interception.
SMU (5-5, 4-2) has won four of its past five and can become bowl eligible by winning one of its remaining two games. The Mustangs travel to Houston before finishing up at home against AAC leader Central Florida.
“That will be iffy,” Jones said of Gilbert’s status for the Houston game. “But it’s not torn so that means he’ll be back.”
Burcham completed nine of 18 passes for 91 yards. Jeremy Johnson reached 100 receptions on the season after making 13 catches.
SMU opened the second half with an 11-play, 75-yard drive that featured a 6-yard touchdown run by Prescott Line to make it 9-0. Chase Hover missed the extra point.
Burcham extended the lead to 16-0 with a 37-yard TD pass to Der’rikk Thompson on the final play of the third quarter.
Keyed by a 73-yard pass from Mike White to Andre Davis, South Florida reached the Mustangs 2 later in the fourth. After three consecutive penalties moved the ball back to the 17, the drive ended following four straight incompletions.
“We hurt ourselves,” Taggart said.
The Mustangs went up 3-0 on their first possession when Hover made a 25-yard field goal, which accounted for all of the first-half points.
A pair of holding penalties, including one that negated an approximately 75-yard run deep into SMU territory by Marcus Shaw, stalled a South Florida drive midway through the first.
Hassan Childs set up South Florida at the SMU 36 after intercepting Gilbert’s pass early in the second, but the Bulls failed to score when Marvin Kloss missed a 51-yard field goal attempt.
Childs also stopped a third-period Mustangs drive by picking off Burcham’s pass at the USF 2.
White was 19 for 34 for 217 yards. The true freshman had two interceptions.
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