Bulls come from behind to beat BYU

Mitchell Wilcox (89) caught a touchdown pass in USF’s victory over BYU on Saturday. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE/GOUSFBULLS

Some wins are bigger than others.

USF’s 27-23 over BYU (2-3) on Saturday at Raymond James Stadium may go down as one of those wins when all is said and done.

The Bulls (3-3, 1-1 AAC) came back from what was a two-score game most of the afternoon, taking a fourth-quarter lead — then stopped the Cougars twice on defense.

“It’s a great win for us,” coach Charlie Strong said. “I said to [offensive quality control analyst] Lindsey [Lamar], I don’t know when the last time we have beat a quality opponent at home. Not overlooking Georgia Tech from last season, but you look at a team [in BYU] that beat USC and came back and beat Tennessee.”

After falling behind 13-0 with an offense that looked hapless — the Bulls failed to record as much as a single first down through their first four drives  — things started to spark midway through the second quarter with a 39-yard touchdown reception by senior tight end Mitchell Wilcox, capping off an eight-play, 86-yard drive.

“This feels really good for our team,” Wilcox said of the come-from-behind victory, “a lot of momentum that we can take from this game.”

USF rushed for 39 yards on the drive, a big key in waking up the offense, according to Strong.

“We were able to establish the run and be consistent,” Strong said. “It’s all about consistency … they’re going to get their stops, and when they do get their stops, you don’t give up on it. You’ve just got to come back to it, and we were able to come back.”

Ultimately, running won the game for the Bulls.

Senior tail back Jordan Cronkrite rushed for more than 100 yards for the second straight week, running for 158 yards and two touchdowns, including the ultimate game-winner in the fourth quarter.

Fellow senior Trevon Sands ran for 63 yards, complementing the second-straight 100-yard effort from Cronkrite.

“That’s my best friend, first and foremost,” Cronkrite said. “I’m hats off to him. He’s been here a long time — longer than I have — and he’s put in the blood, sweat and tears for this … so hats off to him.”

McCloud added a rushing touchdown himself early in the fourth quarter, which cut the BYU lead to two points before Cronkrite’s second touchdown gave the Bulls the lead they never surrendered.

It’s a good thing the running game worked — USF ultimately finished with 243 yards on the ground — because the passing game didn’t due to injuries.

With senior quarterback Blake Barnett not even dressed due to an ankle injury and McCloud still nursing a wrist to the point of wearing a glove in the second half, it was a struggle getting anything going in the air. McCloud went 7-of-14 with an interception on an overthrown ball and a fumble that basically fell out of his hands.

“I got banged up in the second or third drive — I got a bad stinger when I was running up the middle,” McCloud said. “After that, I talked to coach. I said we could pass it, [but] ‘let’s just try to get the running game going to help me out a little bit.'”

The Bulls needed their defense — and punter eventually — to come up big at the end.

After Cronkrite’s second touchdown gave USF a four-point lead, the Bulls lined up to go for two looking to extend the lead to six.

McCloud found junior tight end Jacob Mathis, but sophomore wide receiver Randall St. Felix was flagged for offensive pass interference.

Kicker Coby Weiss missed the ensuing point-after attempt.

BYU had more than seven minutes to produce a game-winning or near game-winning touchdown drive, but the Bulls defense held, forcing a turnover on downs at the USF 5-yard line with under two minutes remaining.

With all three BYU timeouts remaining, the Bulls’ offense needed a first down to seal the deal.

It gained 8 yards.

Enter the boot of 29-year old Australian punter Trent Schneider, who kicked it 61 yards, pinning BYU inside its 30.

The Cougars drove downfield quickly, but Schneider’s punt ultimately proved to be too much to overcome.

“I knew I had to deliver for the team,” Schneider said. “Big punt. If I hit it well, we have to just stop them on defense and we get the win. I did my job, the defense did their job, and we came away with the victory.”

A victory that means so much more.

After all, it is USF’s first win against an FBS team that isn’t the usually hapless UConn Huskies since Oct. 12, 2018, and also marks USF’s first winning streak since the end of the seven-game streak that started the 2018 season.

“It gets our program back on track,” Schneider said. “We needed this win, there’s no doubt about it. We should have beat Georgia Tech [in Week 2]. We left that on the field as well. So now, 3-3, every game is ahead of us.”