It came quickly without warning and was more than a bit unexpected.
After entering Saturday’s game with East Carolina with an offense ranked 80th in scoring, USF erupted in the second half with touchdowns on each of its first four drives to turn a 17-15 deficit into a comfortable 43-17 cushion.
“Field position played a big part in the third quarter,” USF coach Jim Leavitt said.
The Bulls (5-2) were averaging under 25 points a game in their first six contests, but the USF offense nearly toppled that figure in the third quarter as quarterback Marquel Blackwell connected on three of his school-record five touchdown passes.
“On offense, the story today was Marquel and what he did with our offense,” Leavitt said. “What a great day he had with five touchdown passes.”
Lacking big play explosiveness in their first six games, the USF offense was a juggernaut vs. ECU (2-4). The Bulls had five plays of 20 yards or more, with three of plays coming on passes of more than 40 yards. USF entered the matchup with just 20 plays of more than 20 yards prior to facing the Pirates.
ECU fired the first big salvo, as Art Brown took a swing pass from quarterback Paul Troth 56 yards for a score on the Pirates’ first play from scrimmage to give them a 7-0 lead a minute and 13 seconds into the game.
The Bulls had the reply in the form of a 75-yard strike from Blackwell to Huey Whittaker that set up a 19-yard field goal from Santiago Gramatica.
“We were very physical, and that was a very physical football team we played,” ECU coach Steve Logan said. “They did a good job of answering after we scored.”
USF went deep again when Hugh Smith scored from 43 yards out to inch the Bulls to within one at 10-9.
Blackwell’s next big pass ensured that USF wouldn’t trail again.
After ECU opened the second half with a 10-play, 80-yard scoring drive to regain the lead at 17-15, Blackwell found the man usually responsible for the Bulls’ biggest gainers, DeAndrew Rubin, with a slicing 53-yard score to push USF ahead 22-17. In his first six games, Rubin had 13 plays that exceeded 20 yards.
“In the second half when we took the lead, (USF) came back with an explosion play on a scramble, got behind our secondary, and that’s just a tough thing to deal with,” Logan said. “They answered all of our scores, and that was to their credit. Our defense flew around and played physical, but their offense, man, they made a lot of plays.”
The big-play outburst wasn’t limited to the offense, as the USF defense turned the game around by forcing some timely turnovers.
Junior defensive end Shurron Pierson forced a fumble in the second quarter that cornerback Ron Hemingway recovered in the end zone for a touchdown to give USF its first lead heading into the half at 15-10. Pierson added another sack and leveled Troth as defensive tackle Greg Walls intercepted the ball.
“We turned the ball over four times and didn’t generate any turnovers, and that’s what got us into the fix that we are in,” Logan said. “We aren’t mature enough to cure that. We have to keep coaching and find a way to generate turnovers.”