So close, yet so far: Bulls’ losing streak up to 8

KJ Sails recorded an interception in Saturday’s loss at Georgia Tech. ORACLE PHOTO/BRIAN HATTAB

ATLANTA — It was so close you could practically hear Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” playing during USF’s 14-10 loss Saturday against Georgia Tech at Bobby Dodd Stadium.

“Knock, knock, knockin’ on Heaven’s door.”

Although in this case, “Heaven” was Georgia Tech’s end zone.

With the Yellow Jackets (1-1, 0-1 ACC) leading by four early in the fourth quarter, a suddenly resurgent USF (0-2, 0-0 AAC) offense, under freshman quarterback Jordan McCloud, was at the 1-yard line after a 54-yard reception by tight end Mitchell Wilcox. Following a false-start penalty, a rush for no gain by senior running back Jordan Cronkrite and a 5-yard rush by McCloud, Cronkrite had seemingly opened the proverbial door to the promised land by scoring a touchdown that would have put the Bulls ahead.

Except he was ruled to have fumbled the ball before it broke the goal line and Georgia Tech recovered at its own 3-yard line.

“Looking at the replay, honestly, I thought he might have broke the plane,” Wilcox said. “But it’s our job to not leave it in the referee’s hands and we’ve got to find a way to get into the end zone. But that’s on me to not get tackled on the 1-foot line. So that’s completely on my shoulders.”

The Bulls did have one more chance following the fumble — it ended in a punt from their own 23-yard line — but they should have had another.

With the Yellow Jackets facing what would have been a fourth-and-14 with just over two minutes remaining, linebacker Patrick Macon was called for targeting on Georgia Tech quarterback Tobias Oliver, allowing the Yellow Jackets the ability to simply line up in victory formation.

“I don’t even think he hit the guy,” coach Charlie Strong said.

If not for Macon’s heroics earlier in the half, however, it’s very possible the Bulls wouldn’t have been in the position they were in late in the game.

With the score 14-3 with 1:16 remaining in the third quarter, Macon deflected a pass by a different Georgia Tech quarterback, Lucas Johnson, ultimately landing in the hands of defensive back KJ Sails. Three plays later, McCloud connected with slot receiver Johnny Ford, playing his first game at the position after being withheld for unspecified reasons in Week 1, for a 20-yard touchdown reception.

Between Sails’ interception, Ford’s touchdown reception and Wilcox’s near-touchdown reception, the latter of which set a new program record for career receptions by a tight end, USF suddenly had all the momentum — and in an instant it was gone because of what may or may not have been a goal-line fumble.

“I thought we had a lot of momentum going,” Wilcox said, “and it does kind of sting a little bit more when it’s right at our fingertips, literally. But we did see a good spark, and I think we’re going to try and hone in on that going forward.”

The personification of that spark, at least as far as the offense went, was McCloud, who replaced starting quarterback Blake Barnett for all but one play after Sails’ interception (the one remaining Barnett play wound up being the Cronkrite fumble). While Strong wouldn’t comment on who will start next week against FCS South Carolina State, he did say the quarterback situation will be looked over.

“We just needed a spark and we needed to get something going on our offense,” Strong said. “We will re-evaluate it and we’ll get a chance to look at it next week.”

Cronkrite only had a marginally better performance than he did in Week 1 against Wisconsin, rushing for 17 net yards, and finishing as USF’s second leading rusher. Like Wisconsin last week, Saturday was another game in which the run game struggled. Excluding a 48-yard rush by Barnett, which was more a result of the pocket collapsing and the senior quarterback looking to escape a sack, the Bulls only rushed for 45 net yards.

“It’s just a matter of sticking with it and being patient with it,” Strong said, “and just running the football and taking advantage of what they give us, and that’s what we haven’t done. We just have not taken advantage of what they’re giving us and you’ve just got to run the ball.”

USF’s defense played arguably its best game in recent memory. The Bulls’ defense only allowed the Yellow Jackets to covert five of their 14 third-down attempts, while defensive ends Devin Studstill  and Greg Reaves led the team with eight tackles each.

“[The loss] hurts a lot, but we’ve seen some great things — we show some great things out there,” Studstill said. “The offense bouncing back in the second half, young guys stepping up all over the board, new faces coming together. We’re cooking with gasoline here. This loss is such a lesson. It’s not a loss, it’s a lesson.”

In addition to Sails’ interception, linebacker Nick Roberts forced a fumble. Strong said it was probably the strongest the defense played in at least two seasons.

“They came up with some keys — they got two key turnovers,” Strong said, “but they had some really key stops in the whole thing.”

The end result is a loss though, and USF has now lost eight in a row in what is now the longest losing streak in program history — although Strong doesn’t see it that way.

“This is a different team, this is a different year,” Strong said. “You can’t go back to last year and say, ‘Hey, listen.’ I mean, we’ve lost eight in a row, yet you can’t go back.

“It’s true, but you’re looking at a totally different football team right now.”