The trip to Provo, Utah, to take on then-ranked No. 15 BYU on Saturday was never supposed to be an easy task for USF. In the first quarter, it looked like it was going to be a long night for the Bulls.
It appeared as if the team had regressed to the form they showed against NC State in the season opener, going down 21-0 before the end of the first quarter.
A significant reason for USF’s unfavorable start was BYU’s ability to orchestrate big plays offensively, including a pair of passes that went for 49 and 55 yards apiece.
The tide changed as the game wore on, however. The Bulls outscored the Cougars 27-14 over the final three quarters and displayed some real hope for the future, specifically in freshman quarterback Timmy McClain.
McClain proves himself to be the guy
For much of the season, coach Jeff Scott has maintained he wanted to have a starting quarterback named heading into Week 5 against SMU on Oct. 2. Following Saturday’s matchup at BYU, it seems his wish has come true.
McClain, who completed 70.8% of his passes for 186 yards to go along with 55 yards on the ground, put himself in pole position to take over the job for the rest of the season with his performance against BYU.
Aside from an early fumble on a botched snap from under center on fourth down, McClain looked unfrazzled by the moment.
Scott expressed confidence in the Sanford native in the postgame press conference, as he confirmed McClain will be the lead signal caller for the foreseeable future.
“I felt like Timmy’s feet were really the difference for us in some situations when maybe we didn’t have what we wanted downfield with the coverage, and he made some plays,” Scott said. “I feel comfortable with him being our starter moving forward.
“We’ll still take it week by week as we go. Obviously, there’s no season-long contracts or anything like that, you’ve got to continue to play well. But right now, he moves the ball best for our offense.”
After owning up to his first-quarter fumble, McClain praised the USF fan base for their consistent support through the team’s early-season struggles.
“I love the fan base, just keep pulling for the team, [for the] coaching staff, keep our spirits lifted up,” McClain said. “[To have] a fan base like that, it just makes us better every week.”
After approximately a year and a half of looking for his No. 1 guy, Scott may have just found him.
Resilience in the face of adversity
BYU’s opening drive appeared to shoot down any hope the Bulls had at an early upset. The Cougars scored on just four plays and continued that trend to jump out to a 21-0 lead before the first quarter expired.
However, the Bulls refused to roll over despite the large deficit, as they came out strong in the second half with the offense firing on all cylinders.
The Bulls had as many first downs in the third quarter alone (8) as they did the entire first half and scored on all three of their possessions, outscoring the Cougars 21-7 and winning the time of possession 19:17 to 10:43.
“I think the ability to run the ball [allowed us to sustain drives in the second half],” Scott said. “We knew this was a team that, they play a lot of coverage, and we knew they were not going to give us a lot of one-on-one opportunities with Weaver and some of our skill guys.”
Saturday was the second time the Bulls managed to outscore an opponent in the second half of a losing performance, the first came against UF on Sept. 11.
Defense exposed by balanced BYU attack
USF allowed five touchdowns on eight drives as well as forcing a punt once and a blocked field goal. On the last offensive series of the game, the Cougars ran the clock out.
“The yards after contact tonight is probably the story of the game defensively,” Scott said. “When you’re not tackling, you’re not stopping the run, then it forces you to be a little bit more aggressive and get up there and then it gets into a one-on-one game [in the secondary] and their guys made the plays.”
BYU’s offense simply outplayed USF’s defense, especially in the first half. USF’s secondary was severely undermanned due to injuries, and when the Bulls stacked the box in an attempt to defend the run, the Cougars threw over the top, notably connecting on receptions of 55, 47, 49 and 27 yards.
The big plays in the passing game weren’t the only thing that hurt USF, however. The Cougars rushed for 138 yards and two touchdowns on 5.5 yards per carry.
To the defense’s credit, it was able to hold BYU to just one touchdown in the second half after surrendering 28 points in the first two quarters.