Despite a 5-1 record midway through the 2016 season, self-inflicted mental errors and physical injuries have forced the Bulls to rally and regroup, finding new ways to finish out games.
Powered by one of the most explosive offenses in all of college football, averaging 44.5 points per game in 2016, USF (5-1, 2-0) has racked up 503 yards per contest, the 18th-best total offense in the NCAA.
However, committing nine penalties for 101 yards in Saturday’s win over East Carolina (2-4, 0-2) raises concerns for USF coach Willie Taggart.
“(It’s) very concerning, very concerning,” Taggart said following Saturday’s win. “It was a sloppy game by us, especially offensively there. We’re in the red zone, and we get these penalties behind the sticks … it was just sloppy all over.”
Notwithstanding these mental errors, the Bulls are still off to their best start since 2009, when they finished 8-5 with a win over Northern Illinois in the International Bowl.
Taggart did say, however, that the ability to bounce back against in-game adversity like the Bulls faced in the final minutes against ECU, is a positive he can take away despite the penalties committed.
“I thought it showed a lot of character out of our football team,” he said.
“Our team has shown now that they can find a way to win a lot of different ways. We were up in Syracuse down 17 (points) early and found a way to come back and win that ball game. (But) to let them get back in it late I thought showed a lot of character and a lot of growth in our football team.”
After USF led by double digits for most of the game, ECU managed to close the gap to within two after a Pirates’ touchdown came with 6:58 left in the game.
But the defense bailed out the team, holding the Pirates out of the end zone on the subsequent game-tying two-point conversion, later sealing the game with an interception by senior linebacker Nigel Harris on ECU’s final drive.
“The defense goes by the motto of ‘bend but don’t break,’” junior cornerback Deatrick Nichols said.
“You’re gonna bend, but just never break. We just bowed up … our offense needed us, and we just completed our job.”
Senior safety Nate Godwin led the Bulls’ defense with 10 tackles. Godwin believes in finding a way to contribute.
“(It’s all about) just helping the team, wherever they need me,” Godwin said. “Wherever they need me … if they want me at nickel, I’ll play nickel. But, it’s all wherever the team needs me.”
Making his first career start at tight end in lieu of injured sophomore Elkanah Dillon, redshirt freshman Mitchell Wilcox also contributed in roles he isn’t used to.
Along with two catches for 52 yards, Wilcox also had four kick returns for 23 yards with ECU opting to kick short most of the game.
Despite the errors, this young team continues to make timely plays and strides towards its first conference title in program history.
“I think all of our guys take pride in their position group,” Taggart said. “We constantly talk to our guys about the opportunities. They don’t come often, but, when they do, you have to be ready for it and I see that our guys are taking that to heart.”