The misfortune for USF (1-7, 0-6) started before the first snap was even played in its 56-21 loss to Houston (3-3, 3-2) on Saturday at TDECU Stadium.
Shortly before kickoff, USF announced that a total of 13 players would be unavailable, including quarterback Noah Johnson, who threw for 217 yards and two touchdowns last week.
In addition to Johnson, USF’s offense was without running back Johnny Ford and quarterback Cade Fortin.
As for the defense, defensive back Vincent Davis, linebackers Mac Harris and Antonio Grier, and four more players did not suit up for the Bulls.
Since so many players were unavailable, the game was almost called off, according to coach Jeff Scott.
“Probably one more injury, or one more positive and just by rule we would not have had enough to be two deep,” Scott said.
When the game did start, things got bad quickly for USF.
Junior quarterback Clayton Tune marched the Houston offense 75 yards down the field in just 56 seconds. The Cougars capped that drive off with a 28-yard touchdown pass to receiver Bryson Smith.
Tune ended the game 14-of-25 through the air for 165 yards and three touchdowns.
In addition to his work in the passing game, Tune also did damage on the ground, as he rushed for 120 yards and two touchdowns in just 10 attempts.
Before Saturday, Tune had just 113 total rushing yards through this season’s first five games.
That’s something safety Bentlee Sanders said the team didn’t expect.
“A lot of quarterback runs, honestly didn’t expect that much,” he said. “A lot of stuff that caught us off guard but no excuses.”
Not only did the Bulls’ defense have issues, but USF’s offense and special teams also struggled, each surrendering second-half points.
Shortly after the half, the Bulls punted to explosive return man Marcus Jones, who fielded the punt and scored on a 72-yard return.
As for the offense, sophomore quarterback Jordan McCloud got the start due to Johnson’s unavailability.
McCloud struggled through the first half as his offense scored zero points, compared to the Tune-led Houston offense which put up 28 first-half points.
In an attempt to rejuvenate the offense, and give a young player live reps, freshman quarterback Katravis Marsh came in to start the second half.
With 6:22 to go in the third quarter, Marsh was hit from his blindside and fumbled the ball in the red zone. Houston defensive lineman Derek Parish snatched the ball out of the air and ran it back 85 yards for a touchdown.
The Cougars extended their lead to 42-0, which held until the Bulls were able to finally strike back with a Leonard Parker touchdown run on the following drive.
Marsh was injured after being hit and did not return to the game.
McCloud returned for the remainder of the game and turned his day around.
The sophomore quarterback ended 14-of-29 for 180 yards and a touchdown. He also added 38 rushing yards.
While McCloud’s performance overall was less than ideal, the rest of the offense, led by the team’s youth, added 152 yards through Marsh, freshman running back Brian Battie and Parker.
Battie had his second consecutive game with a large role. He ended with 86 rushing yards on 13 attempts, averaging 6.6 yards per carry.
Scott gave praise to Battie, saying that he has earned his playing time.
“Battie is getting an opportunity because he’s earned it,” Scott said.
Fellow freshmen Parker and Omarion Dollison also showed promise, as each found the end zone once.
In addition to the play of the younger players, another positive from the game was the team’s competitiveness until the end.
Despite being down 42-0 in the third quarter, the Bulls went on to score 21 straight points.
Sanders added to those 21 points with a pick-six, which cut the Houston lead to 42-21.
He said he used game film to make that play happen.
“That’s something I picked up in film,” Sanders said. “The quarterback gave me little signs about hot routes that they do, he gave it to the receiver and then I heard my coach in the background scream my name.
“I already knew something was coming, I just jumped it.”
Albeit Sanders’ interception was USF’s last score of the game, the Bulls’ ability to continue competing is something Scott valued.
“Even though it wasn’t perfect, I felt like our guys came back out in the third quarter and competed, and gave us a chance going into the fourth quarter,” Scott said.
Moving forward, the thought shifts to what USF can learn from the loss, the only thing Scott said his team can do with two games left.
“We’ll regroup, we’ll learn from it and move on,” Scott said. “That’s all you can do at this point.”