TAMPA – Saturday night’s fourth-quarter comeback against Florida International wouldn’t have been necessary if it wasn’t for numerous penalties by USF’s special teams.
Quarterback Matt Grothe finally found his rhythm when his team really needed him, but Ean Randolph had been producing all night – even though the stat sheet doesn’t show it.
With the Bulls trailing 6-0 in the first quarter, Randolph returned a punt 46 yards to the end zone, but for the second straight week, the return was called back on a flag.
“When I was running from the angle I was coming from, it looked like the defender had a nice tackling angle on him,” said junior Mike Jenkins, who was called for a block below the waist. “I just dove; I was just trying to make a play.”
How would Randolph respond to the penalty? He simply did the same thing on his next punt return, going 76 yards for the score. This time it counted.
“I feel like he’s probably one of the best returners in the nation,” Jenkins said. “As long as you get the distinguished block and nobody gets down to distract him from catching the ball, he’s going to give you a good 20 yards or more or a touchdown.”
On his next return, Randolph did the unthinkable, crossing the goal line for the third time in the game. But again, he looked up and saw flags on the field – this time three separate USF penalties.
“It breaks my heart because here he does so well, and we keep getting a face-mask penalty or a block in the back,” coach Jim Leavitt said. “It’s not because the guys aren’t trying. The effort’s great; it’s just very foolish.”
If the Bulls could have avoided the penalties, Randolph would have finished the night with 184 punt-return yards and three touchdowns. Instead, the senior wide receiver recorded 123 yards and a touchdown.
“We talked at length about it,” Leavitt said. “I said, ‘How many times are we going to do this?’ Poor Ean. Ean would be leading the country (in punt returns) easy, if we weren’t so foolish.”
Although he’s had three punt returns called back in USF’s first two games, Randolph’s performance on the field and ability to get by defenders hasn’t gone unnoticed by his teammates.
“He’s like a human highlight reel,” sophomore wide receiver Marcus Edwards said. “It’s fun to watch him play. I like to be on the sideline when he has the ball in his hands so I can see what he’s going to do.”
Grothe, who made his first career start against the Golden Panthers, played on USF’s scout team last year with Randolph and was impressed, but not surprised with what he’s seen.
“Ridiculous,” Grothe said about Randolph’s punt returns. “I always knew from day one when I met him (he would be good).
One of his coaches that coached him at Webber (International) lives down the street from me, and he was telling me about this kid who was coming to USF.”
After multiple outstanding efforts for Randolph have ended up being meaningless, his teammates said he has handled the flags well.
“Ean doesn’t really show too much emotion,” Grothe said. “He’s kind of a mellow guy and just does what he does. I know deep down inside he was probably ticked off because this is his first year to be able to play in Division-I football.”
Added Edwards: “He’s a quiet guy. He asks for the oxygen. He plays the play (and) comes to the sideline to see what the coach has to say.”
If USF’s offense continues to struggle throughout the season like it did for much of Saturday’s game, Randolph’s punt returns could become more crucial for the Bulls to put points on the board. And players know they can’t afford the penalties.
“There’s not really much else the coaches can do,” Edwards said. “It’s on us now. We’ve got to have discipline. We’ve got to make the plays. We’ve got to eliminate the stupid penalties.”