In front of 6,799 fans, USF failed to deliver on what was meant to be a special Homecoming game for the Bulls faithful.
Fans were allowed at Raymond James Stadium for the first time all season, and what they were treated to was a frustrating 44-24 USF (1-3, 0-2) loss to East Carolina (1-2, 1-1) on Saturday.
“[I am] obviously very disappointed with our execution,” USF coach Jeff Scott said. “I was pleased with the way that we practiced this week, that’s probably the most frustrating part right now is we’re just not translating it to the game.”
Fresh off what some may call a quarterback controversy, Scott decided to go with one player for most of the game — Jordan McCloud who went 26-of-35 for 298 yards, most since his performance in last year’s loss to Cincinnati.
Noah Johnson came in for final five minutes and went 2-of-3 for 8 yards and scored a consolation touchdown.
“At that point, the game was out of reach and I wanted to give Noah an opportunity to play because there’s nothing like game reps,” Scott said. “Noah has worked extremely hard in practice and deserved an opportunity to play if it presented itself.”
For McCloud, who on paper, was possibly the best he’s been in his USF career, his production didn’t necessarily translate to points on the board.
All three USF touchdowns came on the ground — the first two by Johnny Ford on an 8-yard dash in the first quarter and a 7-yard run in the second, and the last by Johnson.
McCloud saw his 26 completions caught by nine different receivers, including Latrell Williams, who made eight receptions for 93 yards, but none were in the end zone.
A 37-yard toss to tight end Mitchell Brinkman on second-and-4 five minutes into the first quarter set up Ford’s first touchdown, putting USF ahead after going down to an East Carolina field goal five plays earlier.
The scoring drive was supposed to build momentum for the remainder of the game, according to McCloud.
“That was our first time scoring on first possession all year so we got to continue doing that,” he said. “A big emphasis this week was being solid from start to finish.”
But what followed was not what McCloud had hoped for. The Pirates scored on their following four drives, while the Bulls wouldn’t score again until four possessions later.
East Carolina’s third scoring drive followed a McCloud fumble in the second quarter. A 9-yard dash to midfield ended in the ball popping out of McCloud’s grasp and into the hands of Elijah Morris at USF’s 42-yard line.
On the ensuing play, East Carolina’s Rahjai Harris took it to the house on a 42-yard run, giving the Pirates a 24-7 lead
As much as the Pirates’ offense flourished — it totaled 432 total yards, with 210 coming from four rushers — USF’s offense struggled to deal with East Carolina’s heavy blitzing defense.
Prior to Saturday, the Pirates had zero sacks. After the game, they went home with five, with four on McCloud and one on Johnson.
It was the first time Scott’s first choice offensive line had played together all season — left tackle Donovan Jennings, left guard Demetris Harris, center Brad Cecil, right guard Michael Wiggs and right tackle Jarrett Hopple.
But there were struggles, which Scott attributed to it being their first game back after some were in quarantine.
When the time comes, they’ll deliver, he said.
“What we got to remember is this is their first game back,” Scott said. “When you’re in quarantine you’re not able to come to practice … you’re at home in your bed, on your couch in your room.
“This is their first game, they’re going to get better. I’ve got a lot of faith in those guys.”
Just as his offensive line will take time to adjust, so will his team. Scott said the lack of spring ball means that now is the time for players to be conditioned, which isn’t ideal.
But they’ve got to work with what they’ve got, Scott said.
“Where we are as a program, we got to build off of that,” he said. “We got to find some positives in a time of adversity and build off of that as we continue to improve and get better.”