Football is an incredibly cruel sport.
Not because it’s violent — although, that is true — but because you only get so many chances to play to the best of your ability.
Through three games, USF is undefeated, but the Bulls have yet to play to their full potential, and coach Charlie Strong knows it.
“You get 12 opportunities and you can’t waste one,” Strong said. “You go and waste one, like Saturday, and now you’re sick about it, because there’s one that we just kind of gave away.”
Maybe it’s a stretch to say the Bulls “gave away” the game in their 25-19 victory at Illinois on Saturday, since they did win. But it is fair to say that they didn’t look sharp most of the afternoon.
USF took a season-high 14 penalties, nine of which came against the Bulls’ offense. The number of penalties on Saturday doubled the previous season-high of seven, set against Elon in the season opener Sept. 1.
One of the penalties was a false start in the third quarter. A successful 35-yard field goal attempt by Coby Weiss was negated, then the ball was taken five yards back to 40 yards because of the penalty. Weiss missed on the second try. He also missed another field goal from 44 yards prior to that, only making one of his three attempted kicks.
Trent Schneider averaged only 34.5 yards per punt and sent two kickoffs out of bounds, giving the Illini great field position to start multiple drives. In Schneider’s defense, Strong said after the game that the Aussie was nursing a hamstring-injury and had reaggravated it during the game.
Blake Barnett, for all his heroics in the fourth quarter, threw two interceptions in the second quarter — including one with seven seconds remaining in the half, which not only cost USF a chance to put up points right before halftime, but led to the Illini tacking on a field goal to take a 16-7 lead into the break.
The Bulls aren’t ignorant to any of these facts. USF players’ body language and general demeanor during the postgame press conference in Chicago told the story — they were upset with the way they played. They weren’t acting the way players normally act after a victory, nor were they talking the way they normally talk after a victory.
A win is a win, but exerting that much effort to get it against an Illinois team that went winless in conference play last season is definitely a moral defeat — even if the Illini played their best game of the season this past weekend. The Illini’s best shouldn’t have been enough for 58 minutes — USF is a much better team than Illinois.
It’s good to be able to come from behind when you need to. Resiliency was the theme in this space last week after the Georgia Tech victory and it’s a good thing to have in general.
But at a certain point, USF just needs to play a complete game of football.
Don’t take your foot off the gas pedal like the Elon game.
Don’t let a team run all over you in the third quarter like Georgia Tech did.
Don’t sleepwalk through 45 minutes like against Illinois.
If the Bulls play against ECU this weekend the way they played in the fourth quarter against Illinois, they should rout the 1-1 Pirates. If they play that way for the rest of the season, they’ll run away with the AAC eastern division — at least until the Bulls play No. 16 UCF in a rematch of the best game of the 2017 college football season on Black Friday.
We’ve seen flashes of greatness from USF this season. Now it’s time to see those flashes for a prolonged period.