ORLANDO, Florida — South Florida has had setbacks during coach Willie Taggart's first season in Tampa.
The Bulls left the field after Friday's 23-20 loss to No. 17 UCF with a few more regrets to dwell on for sure, but it also displayed flashes of the team Taggart has been hoping to see for weeks.
USF (2-9, 2-5 American Athletic Conference) had a final chance to win or send the game to overtime, but Jordan Ozerities intercepted Mike White's pass and returned it 52 yards with 1:20 left in the game to seal the win.
The Bulls lost their fifth straight, their longest losing streak of the season.
"At halftime I'm sure not that many people thought that we would come out and play as well on offense as we did in the second half," Taggart said. "Credit to our guys, they kept fighting."
UCF (10-1, 7-0) secured at least a share of the conference title. A victory against SMU next week will give the Knights the title outright and their first bid to the BCS.
And they beat the Bulls, despite committing five turnovers, including three by Bortles.
USF had two turnovers, one leading to a UCF touchdown.
"We had an opportunity and we didn't take advantage of it," Taggart said. "We had a chance on that last drive to take the lead or kick a field goal and tie it up. And we threw an interception."
"We weren't surprised we had a chance to win the game," Bulls receiver Andre Davis said. "We could have easily taken that game, gone up two scores. It is what it is."
Bortles, who came into the game with just five interceptions on the season, finished 17 for 26 for 219 yards, with two touchdowns and two interceptions. He also had a fumble.
White, one of three quarterbacks USF has used this season, was steady at times completing 15 of 34 passes for 211 yards. Davis caught seven passes for 87 yards.
USF took a 20-16 lead early in the fourth quarter on a 1-yard touchdown plunge by Shaw with 14:17 left.
UCF took over with 6:54 remaining, but Bortles was picked off on the first play of the drive to give the ball back to USF inside the Knights 35.
The Bulls' ensuing drive stalled and a 51-yard field goal attempt by Marvin Kloss sailed wide right to set up the Knights' go-ahead drive.
USF drove to the UCF 39 in its final drive, but White's third-down pass was intercepted by Ozerities.
Miscues by the Knights allowed the Bulls to stay in the game in the final 30 minutes.
Leading by seven at the break, UCF's fourth turnover of the game — a fumble by Bortles inside the UCF 30 — allowed USF to tie the game at 13-13 late in the third quarter.
The Bulls needed three plays to get into the end zone, scoring on an 13-yard end around run by Dunkley.
The first half had rough moments on both sides, though UCF had just enough success to take a 13-6 lead into halftime.
UCF survived three turnovers, taking its first lead of the game late in the half thanks in part to failed USF gamble.
Leading 6-3, the Bulls went for it on fourth-and-2 on the UCF 8, but the snap from center Austin Reiter never reached White, and was recovered the Knights.
UCF's offense quickly went to work and capped a 12-play, 92-yard drive that used more than 6 minutes with an 8-yard touchdown pass from Bortles to Justin Tukes that made it 10-6.
Taggart said he hopes this latest defeat will motivate his team going forward.
"We're trying to teach our guys to hate losing," he said. "You have to hate losing in order to start winning."
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