It’s kind of hard to believe it considering the opponent, but USF (3-4, 1-2) is looking at a must-win game against ECU (3-4, 0-2) on Saturday at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium (3:45 p.m.|TV: ESPNU|Radio: WDAE-AM 620).
The Bulls are dangerously close to going from all smiles and “singing a different tune” — that’s part of an actual headline from an Oracle article from March, during USF’s spring practices — to almost assuredly missing out on bowl eligibility if they don’t leave Greenville, North Carolina, with a win.
Things have spiraled out of control — and quickly — for a program that’s lost 10 of its last 13, especially considering coach Charlie Strong’s tenure began with a 17-2 record.
It doesn’t help that USF ended last season on a six-game losing streak.
But last year was a different story, according to junior defensive back Mike Hampton.
“I think this year players actually care,” Hampton said Tuesday. “You can see it in the locker room. After a loss, players are down. Last year, we kind of got used to it, so we didn’t really care. But this year, we’re taking it more upon ourselves to be better.”
Right now, though, the Bulls are desperate for a win against a team that went 1-7 in the AAC last year just to hold out hope for making something of the season.
“We need to go win this football game,” Strong said Monday. “When we get to November is when some seasons really begin. Everybody remembers November.
“But we’ve got to get to November.”
What’s made getting there hard has been the all-around inconsistency in September and October — and there’s no one place to point fingers.
Every single aspect of the team can share part of the blame.
The defense looks shaky one week, like in Week 1 against Wisconsin and Sept. 28 against SMU. The offensive line can’t keep the pocket open for more than a fraction of a second another week.
But then each unit performs well, like the line’s performance against UConn on Oct. 5 or the defense against Georgia Tech in Week 2, and it feels like the tide is about to turn. Maybe — just maybe — the Bulls will be what fans hoped for if all the pieces come together at once.
And it’s not like the players have given up.
“I believe that there’s never a point where you give up on a season, no matter what,” senior offensive lineman William Atterbury said Tuesday. “I never give up on a game either.”
It hasn’t helped that the last few weeks, the quarterback situation has been less than ideal.
Senior Blake Barnett is out for the season with a high ankle sprain, while redshirt freshman Jordan McCloud has been fighting his way through wrist and shoulder injuries and probably shouldn’t have been playing since he couldn’t make the throws he needed to make.
The Bulls may be forced to start walk-on sophomore Kirk Rygol against ECU.
“I’m not going to put [McCloud] out there this week if he can’t make those kind of throws,” offensive coordinator Kerwin Bell said Wednesday. “We don’t just want him to survive, we’ve got to get somebody down there that can go make the throws and get us a chance to go score points.”
Whether it’s Rygol or McCloud will be seen Saturday.
Regardless, this is a critical game based on what’s coming after.
A loss this week — with how backloaded the schedule is, as the Bulls face Temple, Cincinnati, Memphis and UCF to round out 2019 — means there is a decent chance USF finishes 2019 on another six-game losing streak.
“There’s absolutely no way we want to finish this season the way that we finished last season,” Atterbury said. “So we’re going to go out and do everything that we can every single game.”
From “singing a different tune” to potentially the same old song and dance.
How did things end up like this?