It was a long time in the making — 329 days, to be exact.
USF football snapped its eight-game losing streak with a decisive 55-16 win against FCS South Carolina State on Saturday at Raymond James Stadium.
There’s a lot to be happy about in this edition of postgame takeaways.
It was anybody’s guess as to who was going to be the starting quarterback.
It’s safe to say USF made the right decision.
Redshirt freshman Jordan McCloud, who found out he was the guy two hours before kickoff, accounted for 290 all-purpose yards and five touchdowns.
The offense simply looked sharper under McCloud. Maybe it’s because he’s more mobile than Blake Barnett, allowing him to extend plays even when the offensive line breaks down. Maybe it’s something else.
Regardless, McCloud didn’t look like he was making his first career start Saturday night.
It’s safe to say he didn’t make his last, either.
Red-zone offense shines
USF’s red zone woes are no secret.
Prior to last week, the Bulls had not thrown a red-zone touchdown pass since Sept. 15, 2018, against Illinois.
USF threw for three on Saturday alone — two from McCloud to tight end Mitchell Wilcox and one from Barnett to wide receiver Terrence Horne.
The Bulls were 7-of-8 in the red zone, with the only non-conversion coming after USF decided to run the clock out from inside the 10-yard line with less than a minute remaining.
It’s critical to get points in short-field situations, and the Bulls were effectively, if not literally, perfect when it came to that Saturday.
USF’s defense took the ball away eight times, setting a program record for takeaways.
Five of them came on fumbles — also a program record — with all five recoveries coming from different players. Additionally, the Bulls made South Carolina State pay when it put the ball on the ground — USF was a perfect 5-of-5 recovering loose footballs.
More importantly, five of the ensuing USF drives started in Bulldog territory, which played a large role in the offense putting up the third-highest point total in the Charlie Strong era.
And the Bulls’ defense could have had more.
Strong pointed out in his postgame press conference four opportunities for takeaways that were just missed, and he was right. There were a few near misses that could have brought the turnover number into double digits.
But for a defense that has had its fair share of woes until recently, this was a great performance.
Running game still needs work
Perhaps the only negative takeaway is the running game, because it’s still not where it needs to be yet.
Freshman Kelley Joiner led with 68 yards, though 51 came on one rush late in the fourth quarter in a situation that’d be generous to describe as “garbage time.”
In fact, prior to Joiner’s rush, McCloud was the game’s leading rusher with 56 net yards gained.
Senior Jordan Cronkrite only gained 25, though he missed the entire second half after sustaining an injury late in the second quarter.
The problematic offensive line is almost assuredly the reason for this. After all, it’s hard to break a long run if there isn’t a hole to run through.
Still, for a team that entered Saturday averaging 59 rushing yards, 218 rushing yards was a welcome improvement.
Keep things in perspective
South Carolina State is an FCS team. An above average FCS team — it has a few good wins under its belt — but FCS just the same. USF came in as a 28-point favorite, even.
However, the Bulls have now played three FCS teams under Strong, and this is by far the biggest beatdown USF has given an opponent from the lower level of Division I.
The Bulls only beat Elon by 20 in Week 1 last season. The differential against Stony Brook was 14 in 2017.
The 39-point differential was also the largest margin of victory in Strong’s time at USF.
So, yes, it was just an FCS beatdown.
But it also might be the turning point after so much misery.