Trailing Temple by seven points with five minutes remaining in USF’s eventual 46-30 loss to the Owls on Friday night in Philadelphia, the Bulls appeared poised to complete the comeback.
After pulling within one score on a four-play, 1:34 touchdown drive earlier in the fourth quarter, the Bulls got the ball back with a shot at leading a game-tying drive.
Rather than marching down the field, USF (6-2, 3-1) found itself facing a 3rd-and-13 on its own 11 with the clock winding down.
Four straight penalties and a pulled hamstring by quarterback Quinton Flowers on a desperation run essentially ended USF’s chance of a win and its hold on first place in the AAC East.
But rather than putting fault with an offense that came into Friday’s game with three nation-leading streaks, coach Willie Taggart and anyone else watching could plainly see the blame lies with the Bulls’ defense.
“First, we’ve got to put guys in the position to make the plays,” Taggart said. “And if the guys can’t do it, then put someone else in that can do it. But some of those missed tackles today are by some of the guys that we count on the most.
“We’ve got to do a better job of just tackling and putting our guys in position to make the plays. Making sure we’ve got the right guys in there that’s going to make the play. It all goes back on me.”
Led by sophomore Ryquell Armstead, who has a partially torn ACL, Temple ran for first downs at will against USF’s paper-thin run defense.
Armstead’s career night of 210 yards and two scores on 20 carries was highlighted by touchdown runs of 76 and 42 yards.
Running behind the blocking of Temple fullback Nick Sharga, Armstead said the Owls had no trouble getting by USF’s defenders by the second half.
“By the end of the 3rd quarter, (Sharga) had USF players falling to their knees out of fear of making contact,” Armstead said.
Following the loss, USF is ranked No. 100 out of 128 FBS teams in rush defense, allowing an average of 206 yards per game, and the schedule doesn’t get any easier from here.
USF, which faces the run-first offense of No. 24 Navy at 7 p.m. this Friday, is in need dire need of a quick fix.
Whether that is reassigning play-calling duties from defensive coordinator Raymond Woodie to another defensive coach or simply opening up competition for starting positions, time is not in the Bulls’ favor.
“We’ve got to change our mentality around here, especially when it comes to the run,” senior linebacker Nigel Harris said. “We’ve got to find some kind of motivation to stop that run, because that’s what’s hurting us right now.”
With the Bulls at such a critical juncture in the season, progress needs to be seen each and every week. Instead, Friday represented a troubling step back that USF will have to bounce back from on short notice.
Now in second place in the AAC East division, USF is facing an all-too familiar feeling to 2015. The Bulls sat out last year’s AAC Championship between Temple and Houston despite defeating each AAC East opponent it faced that season.
This year, USF is yet again in need of conference losses from Temple to prevent the Owls from playing in a second-consecutive conference championship.
Fixing the run defense is much easier said than done, but any chance of a first-ever conference championship at USF is slipping by the Bulls with every missed tackle and blown assignment.