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Bulls trampled by Mustangs in conference opener

Jordan McCloud was sacked six times in USF’s loss to SMU on Saturday. ORACLE PHOTO/LEDA ALVIM

If there was a chance for USF to win against SMU, it would have been through its defense. On paper, the Bulls’ defense looked likely to match SMU’s 4-0 offense.

But after USF football (1-3, 0-1) lost 48-21 against SMU (5-0, 1-0) in the conference opener Saturday at Raymond James Stadium, it was clear the Bulls were no match for the Mustangs.

“Whenever you play at home, you expect to play better and go out and compete and you don’t fall behind and give up the big plays,” coach Charlie Strong said. “It’s almost like when it happens to us, we’re ready for someone else to make a play … no, you can’t wait for anyone else.” 

Heading into Saturday, USF’s defense was sharp. The Bulls were the national leader in turnovers forced with 11 and the Bulls set a program record for takeaways with eight against South Carolina State two weeks ago.

USF’s defense against SMU was a different story, however.

The Mustangs gained a total of 497 yards on 77 plays — 245 yards by land, 252 by air. SMU scored five touchdowns in as many drives in the first half.

SMU showcased its “Air Raid” offense — setting up a “home run” pass with a series of short runs. Having worked with SMU’s junior quarterback Shane Buchele during their time together at Texas, Strong knew the Mustangs’ style of offense and prepared his team for it.

“They threw the ball up over our head, which we went into the game saying, ‘We can’t allow that to happen,’” Strong said.

In terms of the tempo of SMU’s offense, senior defensive end Kirk Livingstone said next to nothing surprised him about the plays the Mustangs ran.

“I think there was maybe like a drive, but that’s definitely something we’ve worked on in practice,” Livingstone said.

However, as the game went on, the Bulls allowed SMU’s “Air Raid” offense to dominate the field.

The Mustangs put up 41 unanswered points before USF scored with 26 seconds left in the third quarter. The USF defense also failed to record a sack.

USF’s scoring was kickstarted by Blake Barnett with a 24-yard touchdown pass to junior tight end Jacob Mathis. Barnett went on to throw two more touchdown passes in the final minutes.

Although Barnett was the playmaking quarterback, redshirt freshman Jordan McCloud started and played until halftime. McCloud completed 42 percent of his passes and was intercepted twice.

Strong said that McCloud was replaced because he sprained his wrist and not because of his performance. Barnett was also seen being helped off the field at the end of the game.

“I just don’t know where we are right now. I haven’t got a chance to talk to our trainers about it,” Strong said.

Given that the first and second choice quarterbacks are potentially out with injury, another layer of doubt is draped over USF’s struggling offense. The Bulls offensive line gave up 10 sacks and 13 tackles for a loss of 52 yards.

“When you get down … and you allow a team to rush you, then you’re going to give up those sacks, especially if guys aren’t getting open,” Strong said.

Despite Saturday’s loss being the ninth straight to an FBS team, Strong is confident the wins will come, but it will take time to fix the issues the team faces.

“We can correct what is happening to us,” Strong said. “So there’s no need in us getting down on ourselves, or all of a sudden looking like, ‘Hey there’s no light at the end of the tunnel.’

“There’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”