Bulls falter early, finish strong in season opener

Quinton Flowers rushed for 91 yards in Saturday’s win against San Jose State, the third most on the team behind running backs D’Ernest Johnson and Darius Tice. THE SPEAR/KAVIN MISTRY

Things didn’t go quite as expected in Charlie Strong’s debut as head coach.

Entering as a 21-point favorite and as the No. 19 team in the nation, the Bulls struggled early against San Jose State and yielded the Spartans 16 unanswered points in the first quarter before rallying to a 42-22 victory at CEFCU Stadium Saturday night.

Strong watched as his Bulls managed 22 yards of offense, allowed a blocked punt, shanked an 18-yard punt and lost their leading tackler on the defensive line – Deadrin Senat – to ejection, all within the game’s first 15 minutes.

To make the sting of losing Senat worse – Spartans quarterback Josh Love delivered a touchdown pass on the same play Senat targeted Love with the helmet-to-helmet tackle that led to his ejection.

Though the only positive on paper from the Bulls’ first quarter was a blocked point after touchdown (PAT) by freshman Kelvin Pinkey, Strong’s message to his players was simple. 

“I just told them, ‘Listen guys, it’s a 60-minute game and we’re not going to panic.” Strong said after the game. “We still have a lot of football left out here and we’re going to get going.’

“Quinton (Flowers) is going to be a play maker at some point. We knew on defense, we just had to keep playing and get the ball back for our offense. He’s going to make it happen. He can do so many things.”

The start of the second quarter brought a new Bulls team – the one that was projected to dominate San Jose State, 4-8 in 2016, on national television.

Bulls’ defensive end Josh Black tackled Spartans running back Malike Robertson for a loss on fourth-and-one to force a turnover on downs. Then, on the ensuing drive, Flowers connected with Darnell Salomon through the air for a 22-yard touchdown.

With the Bulls’ defense stepping up again, USF’s next drive began after linebacker Nico Sawtelle intercepted Love and ended with D’Ernest Johnson plunging into the end zone on fourth-and-2 to cut the Spartans lead to less than a field goal.

“(The defense) brought the momentum,” Johnson said. “After they did that, we told each other, ‘We’ve got to go out there and score now. The defense is doing their job. We’ve got to settle down and let the game come to us.’”

Another take-away by the Bulls defense led to a 49-yard touchdown pass from Flowers to graduate transfer Temi Alaka, giving the Bulls a lead they would never relinquish.

With the first quarter scare in the books, the Bulls never looked back, scoring 42 unanswered points in front of an announced crowd of 13,377.

Flowers finished with 282 total yards and two passing touchdowns. In the Bulls first game post Marlon Mack, Johnson carried the ball 22 times for 99 yards and a touchdown, while Darius Tice rushed for 95 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries.

Defensively, the Bulls executed in areas where they struggled in 2016, shutting out San Jose State for 39-consecutive-minutes after they jumped out to an early 16-0 lead, and allowed only 109 rushing yards despite Senat’s first quarter ejection.

“Once we got going, then we were able to put it all together,” Strong said after the win. “You can see it we can explode on offense. We’ve got some guys that can really play and guys that can move the ball and get first downs for us. Then defensively, we were able to get the turnovers and on third down, we were able to get off the field and make plays.”

Back in Tampa for game two, the Bulls’ will look to replicate Saturday’s last three quarters right away in Charlie Strong’s first game in Raymond James Stadium against Stony Brook at 4 p.m.