Forget the 24 points allowed in the fourth quarter.
Pay no mind to the 600-plus yards No. 22 Navy put up against a USF defense that has spent far too much time on the field in the past few weeks.
USF’s 52-45 win over Navy (5-2, 4-1) on Friday night at Raymond James Stadium was a game the Bulls needed to win in their quest for a coveted spot in the AAC Championship game.
And pretty or not, they did just that.
After losing to Temple 46-30 last week, the Bulls will have to rely on an Owls’ loss to retake first place in the AAC East Division.
With their season on the line, the Bulls opened the game with the fire and desperation missing in their loss in Philadelphia.
Aided by two defensive stands near midfield on Navy’s first two drives — a stop on fourth-and-short and a forced punt — USF (7-2, 4-1) took control of the game with touchdowns on each of its first six drives.
Up 28-0 after the first quarter against a ranked opponent, coach Willie Taggart said it was the best he has felt about his team thus far in 2016.
“Absolutely, that’s pretty cool,” Taggart said. “You’d be happy too, up 28-0. I thought our guys came out and responded well to how we performed last week. We need four more weeks … no, five more weeks like that, so we’ve got to keep going.”
Even with the Midshipmen breaking through for three touchdowns in the fourth quarter, the win was never in question for USF. A garbage-time touchdown by Navy on the game’s final play made the game appear to be much closer than it really was.
Leading by multiple scores and with several of the Bulls’ defensive starters resting, it was inevitable that Navy’s rushing attack — fifth in the nation for yards per game after rushing for 317 on Friday— would at some point close in on the 28-point halftime deficit.
“I was disappointed the way our defense played in the second half to give up all those passing yards when we knew they had to throw the football to get back in it,” Taggart said. “It was very disappointing to give up those yards at the end. But, I was impressed with our defense, especially in the first half what they did.”
While the defense will likely be USF’s Achilles’ heel down the final stretch of the season, it wasn’t as if this was the first time these issues have cropped up.
After holding every opponent except Florida State under 23 points through the first six weeks of the season, the ‘Bull Sharks’ have allowed an average of 39 points over their last three games.
If the Bulls are to win against teams with potent offenses such as Navy, they have to score with reckless abandon as they did Friday night. It’s too late in the season to fix the defense and Taggart has said several times he won’t shift play-calling duties away from defensive coordinator Raymond Woodie.
With three games left on the schedule (Memphis, SMU, UCF), USF’s offense must maintain a torrid pace if it hopes to still be playing for a conference title in December.