No one at Raymond James Stadium should have been surprised by the outcome of Saturday’s game between USF and No. 13 Florida, but perhaps the only surprise was that the Bulls managed to get on the scoreboard in their 42-20 loss to the Gators.
USF (0-2) was outclassed in all phases of the game in the blowout in front of a packed crowd of 66,646 that was mostly wearing blue and orange. Since coach Jeff Scott took over the program, the team has allowed 40 points seven times in 11 games.
The talent gap between the two teams was evident from the start as the Bulls were unable to stop an elite UF (2-0) offense that had 373 yards of total offense in the first half alone and finished with 666 for the game.
Early on the Bulls looked ready to hold their own. Following the Gators’ first touchdown, sophomore quarterback Cade Fortin led the offense on a 75-yard drive that ended with a field goal to cut the early deficit to four with 4:45 remaining in the first quarter.
However, UF’s offense went on to score 28 unanswered points en route to a 35-3 halftime lead.
“There’s a reason they’re ranked where they are,” Scott said. “Coach [Dan] Mullen and his staff did an excellent job and we got outexecuted in the first half and gave up too many big plays on defense.”
Florida used a two-quarterback system with redshirt junior Emory Jones and redshirt freshman Anthony Richardson, both of whom had great success against the Bulls’ defense.
Jones completed 14 passes for 151 yards, two interceptions and a touchdown to go along with 89 yards and a touchdown on the ground.
Richardson led the Gators in both categories completing all three of his passes for 152 yards and two touchdowns including a 75-yard pass to redshirt junior Jacob Copeland. He also ran for 115 yards on four carries that included an 80-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.
There was no drop-off in Mullen’s offense regardless of the signal caller, which caused USF’s defense fits.
“It was just the fact that one of those two was always in. … Both quarterbacks are very good players and I know they’ll have a big season regardless who’s in,” Scott said.
The tide of the game changed a bit in the second half as the Bulls came out much more motivated, shutting out the Gators in the third quarter and outscoring them 17-7 in the second half.
“The goal is to win the game. We didn’t win the game. We played very poorly in the first half,” Scott said. “But I do think we’re going to look back to the second half of this game, the way this group responded down 35-3, it’s very easy, very common just to kind of roll over and it could’ve gotten real ugly, real quick.
“And our guys competed and played hard in the second half and ended up outscoring them 17-7 in the second half. So I really think we’re going to look back three, four, five weeks from now and say the second half of this game is where really we kind of started to turn the corner.”
The key to the second-half improvement was the defense, which forced two turnovers from Jones that helped set up multiple scoring drives. Part of the reason for the improvement was a halftime speech from USF alumnus and two-time Super Bowl champion Jason Pierre-Paul.
“[Pierre-Paul] gave us a good pep talk that really helped us get our morale and come out there and play how we did in the second half,” junior linebacker Dwayne Boyles Jr. said.
“[He said], ‘Just play hard. At all levels this is going to happen either in the pros or little league, y’all are gonna have to keep on playing hard and don’t lose that confidence in yourself.’”
Another bright spot on an otherwise disappointing day for Scott and the Bulls was scoring their first touchdown of the season midway through the third quarter. Following an interception from Jones, USF had a 43-yard drive that ended in a one-yard run by junior running back Jaren Mangham, who finished with two scores.
“It felt good getting back in the end zone,” Mangham said. “Felt good scoring as a team more so, putting those points up on the board, outscoring them in the second half was a big step forward for us.”
Scott decided to play two quarterbacks for the majority of the day, starting Fortin and eventually having freshman Timmy McClain take over in the second half.
While Fortin improved on his 40-yard performance from Week 1 with a 12-of-19 performance for 91 yards and an interception, he was arguably outplayed by McClain who went 4-of-10 for 83 yards and helped lead the Bulls on that first touchdown drive.
One of McClain’s completions was a 44-yard connection with junior receiver Xavier Weaver who hauled in the pass down the seam. Weaver finished the day with two receptions for 68 yards.
Sophomore Katravis Marsh also got the opportunity to lead a series that ended in a touchdown toward the end of the fourth quarter on another Mangham run.
Despite the improved performances from his signal callers, Scott said Saturday’s game didn’t leave him with a clearer picture of who will remain the starter for the rest of the season.
“At the end of the day, we’re going to have to pick a quarterback and move forward. I’m not ready to do that right now without watching the tape,” he said. “We’ll see if we’re ready to do that next week. Ultimately, the big-picture goal is to have our quarterback solidified before going into game five starting conference play.”
The Bulls return to Raymond James Sept. 18 for a 7 p.m. kickoff against Florida A&M. The game will be streamed live on ESPN+ and broadcast on 95.3/620 Bulls Unlimited.