GREENVILLE, N.C. — The concept of bouncing back is something USF is all too familiar with.
A week after being held to only a field goal against Navy, the Bulls (4-4, 2-2) bounced back through an explosive offense in a 45-20 win over East Carolina (3-5, 0-4) at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on Saturday.
The Bulls gained a season-high 525 yards, surpassing the previous high of 503 (Oct. 5 at UConn).
Over 66 percent of USF’s offense came on the ground, with senior running back Jordan Cronkrite leading with 129 yards and two touchdowns. Saturday was Cronkrite’s third 100-plus yard game this season.
“I’m not really about 100-yard rushes and all that,” Cronkrite said. “I’m just happy that we won.”
The first play of the game contradicts the final score. In fact, USF was put on the back foot from the start. ECU’s redshirt freshman receiver Tyler Snead returned freshman Spencer Shrader’s kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown.
The score didn’t stay in the Pirates’ favor much longer, as USF leveled up on its first drive after Cronkrite made a 5-yard rush into the endzone, capping off a 10-play, 75-yard drive.
“We got the score back to seven, so we said, ‘0-0, let’s keep playing guys,’” coach Charlie Strong said.
Keep playing the Bulls did, as they went into halftime with a 35-10 lead over the Pirates.
Following the initial bounce-back touchdown by Cronkrite, McCloud threw two touchdown passes — one to junior tight end Jacob Mathis for 21 yards later in the first quarter, followed by an 18-yard pass to sophomore receiver Randall St. Felix two drives later.
St. Felix, whose touchdown reception was his second of the season, gained a season-high 79 yards.
His touchdown was something he was going to catch, according to St. Felix.
“I told the quarterback, ‘watch me,’ so when the ball came up I knew it was an opportunity for me to make a touchdown,” St. Felix said.
Strong said he was challenging his receivers to perform. St. Felix was vocal about the difference in his performance against ECU compared with how he’s played in previous weeks.
“I actually took it as disrespect. So when I feel disrespected, that’s when I step up to the plate,” St. Felix said. “I do what I have to do … you practice how you play … I showed up today.”
USF’s offense against ECU heavily utilized freshman Jah’Quez Evans at the wildcat position.
Evans gained 99 net yards, including a 34-yard touchdown. On six attempts he ran for an average of more than 16 yards.
On the depth chart, Evans is listed as a wide receiver. Given his ability to play almost every playmaking position on offense, his versatility is important to the team, according to Cronkrite.
“He does a great job wherever he his,” Cronkrite said. “He came out here and did a great job and he gives us a different dynamic … it’s great to have.”
Evans’ touchdown came in the second quarter and his activity on the field came in that quarter alone. He did not appear in the second half after he picked up a head injury before halftime.
McCloud also suffered a minor ankle sprain in the second quarter.
McCloud was 9-of-12 for 102 yards and two touchdown passes in his second best performance against an FBS opponent this season, with his best coming against UConn on Oct. 5.
Both players could have returned to the game, but with an ocean of a difference in the scoreline, Strong put sophomore quarterback Kirk Rygol in to finish out the game in order to save his starter.
“If we had gotten to where we needed them they probably could’ve come back,” Strong said.
With a bye week on the horizon, followed by games against four opponents that are over .500, the road ahead is what will test USF’s ability to keep momentum.
“We still control our own destiny on our side of the conference,” Cronkrite said. “You’re taking it game by game. You’re going to enjoy the win for the rest of the night and tomorrow we’re back to work.”