At the half, a 14-point lead meant USF was on track to win its first conference game in over a calendar year. That energy was kept up even with under five minutes to go when the Bulls were up 33-20.
Then USF watched as its lead went from comfortable, to slim, to nonexistent in the following three minutes.
In the end, it was a pair of unanswered touchdowns and a drained late-game Bulls defense that led to a 34-33 loss for USF (1-6, 0-5) at Memphis (4-2, 3-2) on Saturday.
USF’s downfall began after kicker Spencer Shrader made his fourth field goal of the day to put the Bulls ahead by 13 points late in the fourth quarter. After seven plays and 72 yards, Memphis trimmed the score to six with a 10-yard touchdown pass from Brady White.
A USF 3-and-out followed, and Memphis took its first and only lead eight plays later by way of another White touchdown pass, his fourth of the day.
With just over a minute to go, USF couldn’t make its way downfield in time, and the Bulls turned the ball over on downs at their own 26-yard line.
As coach Jeff Scott put it, the Bulls were simply outclassed down the stretch, and it had a lot to do with White’s performance.
“At the end of the day, we just got out-executed in the fourth quarter, and they had a lot to do with that,” he said. “I think we just got tired at the end couldn’t get to him and gave him too much time, and you do that to a good quarterback like that it’s going to be difficult.”
White threw two touchdown passes and went 12-of-15 for 140 yards in the last quarter. He threw for 437 yards with four touchdown passes across the game.
USF’s secondary, without safety Nick Roberts, who left the team in the bye week, was thin, forcing Scott to rely on a small pool of defensive players, which wasn’t a good matchup for White’s arm. It was also a matter of some players not sticking to their assignments.
“We really had three guys that had to play the whole game and they’re playing a lot of special teams and those kinds of things, so, unfortunately, we just kind of got tired a little bit there at corner,” Scott said. “Their quarterback did a good job of finding those windows and delivering the ball … part of it you got to give them credit, and the other part we got to go back and find out why we were out of position.”
While White continued to find targets, USF starter Noah Johnson played a significant role in the Bulls’ offense.
Johnson, who made his first start, played the entire game. He went 20-of-29 for 217 yards and two touchdowns. His longest throw was a 75-yard pass to Kelley Joiner in the second quarter for USF’s second touchdown of the day.
The decision to start Johnson over typical No. 1 Jordan McCloud was due to Johnson’s performance against Tulsa before the bye week, where he went 18-of-27 for 150 yards.
Scott said he picked Johnson to inject consistency in the quarterback position.
“Noah started making some nice throws for us and continued to move the ball,” Scott said. “Our goal is definitely to try to have some consistency, and I think overall, you look at his numbers and all that, I think he played well and he gave us an opportunity to win the game.”
Johnson found nine different receivers who averaged 10.9 yards per reception. Joiner led the way with 78 yards on three catches. Johnson said he sees the receivers continuing their streak.
“Passing it was a point of emphasis so we definitely got the ball in there,” Johnson said. “We had some really good stuff there so I’m excited for the receivers in the next few weeks to keep that going.”
USF also found consistency with field goals as well. Shrader went 4-of-4 and averaged 45.8 yards per kick. Arkansas transfer Jared Sackett is the usual starter, but Shrader was picked to kick field goals from more than 45 yards out.
“Our plan going into this week was any kick over 45 yards or longer, we were going to use Spencer because he’s done a good job kicking long field goals,” Scott. “He’s a very talented young man who’s kicked extremely well in practice. It’s just been a process for him to carry it over to the game field when it really matters, and I felt like that was definitely one of the positives that we can build off of today.”
For Scott, the loss wasn’t all bad. He thought his team played well for the first three and a half quarters, and despite failing to see the game out, the Bulls have made progress.
“I feel like our theme is closer right now than it did at any point,” he said. “I would say you could probably look around the country I don’t know how many 1-5 teams would come out and play the way that we played tonight for the first three and a half quarters.
“We’re playing to win the game. but at the same time, we’ve made so much progress from where we were earlier in the year … our goal is to dig ourselves out of this valley that we’re in here the last few games.”