USF entered Saturday’s matchup against North Carolina State with positive momentum, coming off a win and a close loss against Maryland.
However, all momentum and progress that the team had gained seemingly vanished in a demoralizing 49-17 loss in front of a crowd of 17,198 at Raymond James Stadium.
“I credit their defensive line,” sophomore quarterback Mike White said. “They gave us problems here and there all day and we couldn’t really get in a groove…we couldn’t seem to click all at the same time.”
USF (1-2) started strong by answering N.C. State’s opening touchdown with a 75-yard pass from White to freshman Ryeshene Bronson for a touchdown — Bronson’s first career TD — to tie the game at seven.
White, who was questionable coming into the game with a compression fracture on his left arm, finished the game 4-for-16 for 82 yards and one touchdown.
White wore a molded plastic cast that covered his wrist and forearm, but enabled him to open his hand up and handle the ball.
The Bulls looked like they were going to keep the momentum going when senior cornerback Chris Dunkley took a punt return all the way back for an 80-yard score, but the play was brought back due to a holding call, erasing the touchdown that would’ve given them a 14-7 lead. The Bulls would end up punting on that drive.
“Plays like that are huge momentum gains for your team when you can get them,” coach Willie Taggart said. “I thought it sparked us until you see the yellow flag out and that can change a ball game.”
The Bulls’ woes continued on the ensuing drive as an N.C. State defender broke through the line and blindsided White as he was throwing, causing him to fumble the ball, which N.C. State recovered.
The highlight of the game was the Wolfpack’s rushing attack. With a committee of backs each recording 10-plus carries, the Wolfpack was able to rack up 315 yards on the ground without recording negative yardage on a single attempt.
“We’re just shocked, you could say embarrassed, but we’re just shocked,” sophomore safety Nate Godwin said. “We don’t expect that out of our defense at all. We hold ourselves to a higher standard than that.”
The Bulls’ defense, ranked fourth in the FBS in turnovers, only forced one turnover against N.C. State (3-0), which was an interception that was returned 46 yards for a touchdown by freshman Lamar Robbins.
The poor play of the defense only exacerbated the Bulls’ prospects of winning. With the offense mired in another slump, only recording 14 passing yards outside the 75-yard touchdown, USF was out of the game by halftime.
“We had guys open, but as soon as (White) was ready to throw, he was getting hit,” Taggart said. “We have to do a better job up front.”
The Bulls struggled to assemble any sort of offense throughout the game, converting only eight first downs compared with the Wolfpack’s 30.
Taggart decided to burn the red shirt of freshman quarterback Quinton Flowers by putting him in the game periodically to give him experience and try to spark the offense. Taggart said the coaching staff had made special packages for Flowers and planned to use him the first two games, but it just didn’t work out until Saturday.
Flowers started the game only on running plays, but opened up the passing game late in the match up, completing one pass for seven yards and two interceptions in his college debut.
“He looked a little wide-eyed, but I just told him have fun, it’s just like high school football except more people,” White said. “He got to having fun and you saw that smile, it was awesome.”
The Bulls have struggled all season to establish a consistent offense. Besides freshman running back Marlon Mack’s record-setting performance against Western Carolina, USF has been searching for an identity on offense, but inconsistency is all they have found.
The Bulls rank 116th in passing yards (151.3) and 89th in rushing yards (149.0) per game in the FBS.
“We have to be able to run the football,” Taggart said. “If there’s anything I’m disappointed in is that we’re not running the football like I know we’re capable of.”
The poor play has shown in the stands, with crowds reaching staggering lows. After an almost full student section in Week 1, USF drew the smallest crowd of the season Saturday.
“I understand (the fans) frustration,” Taggart said. “Just hang in there with us…it’s up to us to earn that support back as a football team.”
After going 3-12 in his first 15 games, Taggart and the Bulls have a chance to turn things around and start conference play on the right foot Friday when UConn comes to Raymond James at 8 p.m. for USF’s first AAC matchup of the season.