For the second Saturday in a row, USF fell behind early against an opponent it was heavily favored to beat.
Both times, however, the Bulls came back to win by double digits – including Saturday’s win over Division 1-AA opponent Stony Brook 31-17 – but will have less room to allow early deficits moving forward with conference play beginning this week.
“We’ve played two games and we’ve yet to play four quarters,” coach Charlie Strong said after Saturday’s win. “Last week we didn’t wake up until the second quarter and today we didn’t really wake up until the fourth quarter.
“I’m looking for us to sometimes go into games and put people away … And that’s the disappointment because I know we can play better and we’re not playing well.”
Opposed to their first game of the season when the Bulls turned a 16-0 first quarter deficit into a 28-16 halftime lead, USF exited the field for halftime Saturday down 10-7 with boos pouring in from a reported crowd of 18,302 at Raymond James.
Stony Brook, who was paid $450,000 by USF to play Saturday, held the Bulls to 92 yards of total offense in the first half and scored a touchdown by recovering a blocked USF punt in the end zone.
The blocked punt was USF’s second of the season in as many games played, matching the record for the most in program history for a single season.
In addition to the special team woes, USF’s 352 yards of total offense on Saturday was the program’s lowest since a 2015 loss to Navy on Halloween and will likely not be enough against future 2017 conference opponents Tulsa and Cincinnati who both averaged over 500 yards a game in 2016.
“I thought they were awful,” Strong said about the offense. “I don’t think we played very well at all. I’m disappointed because I know we can play better than what we’re playing. It’s all about trying to establish a tempo and that’s where the disappointment comes.
“I don’t expect us to score every drive, but I expect us to go move the ball down there and not look up at 14-10 or whatever the halftime score was.”
USF’s offense, known for its explosiveness in 2016, had no plays go for 20-plus yards until the fourth quarter Saturday when Quinton Flowers threw to Tyree McCants for a 65-yard touchdown that gave USF a 24-17 lead.
Running back Darius Tice (16 carries, 52 yards) rushed for two touchdowns, including one with 1:40 remaining in the fourth quarter to make the Bulls lead 31-17. The touchdown kept USF’s streak of games with a 30-plus points alive, extending it to a nation-leading 19 games.
Tice, who’s listed as the Bulls’ No. 2 running back on the USF depth chart, out-played No. 1 running back D’Ernest Johnson (13 carries, 15 yards) on Saturday, averaging 3.6 yards per carry to Johnson’s 1.2.
Though they were closer in yards per carry in the Bulls’ opener at San Jose State, Tice was still more efficient with an average of 4.7 yards to Johnson’s 4.5.
No comment was made by Strong post game in regard to who would be the lead running back moving forward.
Though it was the offense that pulled through in the games final minutes, it may be the Bulls’ defense that leads USF in games moving forward.
“The thing that’s happening with us now is we’re playing better defense,” Strong said. “So now it’s not all on the offense’s shoulder where they have to go score because we’re going to give up points on defense. I told them, the plan to win is go play great defense.”
In 2016, the Bulls’ defense gave up an average of 380 yards per game, ranking 52nd in the nation. Saturday, the Bulls gave up only 229 yards of total offense to the Sea Wolves and forced two turnovers.
“All things that happened today, all of the issues we had, they can be corrected,” Strong said. “What’s good now is we go on the road to play Connecticut and we know we can’t go out there and play like we did that last two weeks. We have to get our minds right and stay focused.
“We need to create turnovers, score in the red zone, and win in the kicking game – which we haven’t done.”
The Bulls will leave Tampa on Friday to travel to face Connecticut at noon next Saturday in the first conference game of the season for both teams. The Huskies, which USF beat 42-27 last year, struggled against a Division I-AA opponent as well last weekend, narrowly defeating Holy Cross 27-20.
Despite UConn’s 3-9 record in 2016, Strong knows that since USF is ranked, they’ll be getting every team’s best shot.
“You’re the No. 19 ranked team in the nation,” Strong told his players. “They’re going to come in and they’re going to and play, so don’t think that all of a sudden they’re just going to come here and sleep walk through this game.
“Think about it, you’re a ranked team, so now that you’re a ranked team everybody expects you to come in and play well and they’re going to play well too.”
Even with two lackluster starts to open the season, Strong doesn’t see why the No. 19 Bulls would drop in the polls.
“I don’t know if we’ll drop,” Strong said. “We don’t have any reason to drop, we just have to be better.”
With USF likely being ranked until they lose, Strong said the pressure may have an effect on the team moving forward, but emphasized that his message to the team is to take everything one game at a time and to ignore outside comments.
“It’s a one game season. Just focus on the opponent we’re playing, don’t worry about everyone else is saying,” Strong said. “Sometimes it’s hard to handle success when you keep hearing it all the time…A lot of times when you’re ranked and what everybody is saying about you, you go out there and tighten up.”
Flowers (253 total yards Saturday), who was considered a Heisman candidate pre-season, has started his 2017 campaign slowly in comparison to 2016. One possibility for his and the offense’s production drop thus far in 2017 is adjusting to a new coaching staff.
“Everybody’s still trying to adjust (to a new coaching staff), even me,” Flowers said. “There’s some things that my coach wants to see out of me and I’m still trying to figure out the reason why he wants to go there, and what he’s going there for so I can understand too.”
Strong, despite the past two games, doesn’t have any worries about his quarterback moving forward.
“You get frustration when the run games not going, then throws aren’t being made and then some dropped throws,” Strong said. “He’s such a competitor, every time he walks out he expects to be perfect, which I told him it won’t always happen, but when you have that competitive edge like he has that’s what happens to you.