Takeaways: McClain shows room for growth, Bulls fall behind early against SMU

Freshman quarterback Timmy McClain finished 14-of-22 for 233 yards against SMU on Saturday. He also rushed for 25 yards. ORACLE PHOTO/LEDA ALVIM

It was an afternoon filled with miscues for the USF football team during its blowout 41-17 loss to SMU on Saturday. 

Playing against one of the most explosive offenses in the country, the Bulls failed to seize multiple opportunities that would have kept the game competitive and possibly even made the Mustangs sweat a bit.

Whether it was costly and untimely penalties, time mismanagement or the inexperience of freshman quarterback Timmy McClain showing, USF found itself incapable of taking advantage of its brightest moments against one of the top teams in the conference.

McClain, who was lauded for his gritty performance against BYU on Sept. 25, demonstrated some of the growing pains that come with starting a true freshman quarterback while still flashing some of the talent that’s caught the attention of coach Jeff Scott and Bulls fans over the last few weeks.

Here’s what we learned from the Bulls’ performance against the Mustangs:

McClain has room to grow

Over his first three starts for USF, McClain has made one thing perfectly clear — he’s the most electric quarterback USF has seen since Quinton Flowers last suited up for the Bulls in 2017. 

On any given play, he has the type of ability to make any throw in the book, use his legs to gain big chunks of yards or elude multiple would-be tacklers to salvage a seemingly dead play. And he did so against the Mustangs.

However, Saturday was perhaps the first time McClain really showed his age, inexperience and some relative weaknesses, particularly in the passing game. 

McClain’s struggles started early in the first quarter on USF’s second drive of the game. On a third and five from the SMU 34, McClain missed a pass to a wide open Xavier Weaver for what would have been an easy touchdown to cut SMU’s lead to three. Although he was hurried by linebacker Turner Coxe, Weaver was at least 5 yards away from the nearest Mustangs defender.

Following an SMU turnover in the second quarter, McClain’s struggles continued as on back-to-back plays he overthrew Omarion Dollison and Weaver, respectively, for potential touchdowns. 

The second Weaver play was perhaps the most egregious of the three, with busted coverage from SMU and him running all alone over the middle of the field.

McClain’s biggest error of the game came on the stroke of halftime with nine seconds left and the Bulls in field goal range. Scott and his coaching staff decided to try one final play to either get field position for a Spencer Shrader field goal or take a shot at the end zone.

Instead of throwing the ball away or running out of bounds before the clock expired, McClain let time run out as he evaded defenders and ultimately fired an incomplete pass into the end zone to finish the half.

“He’ll learn from [his mistakes], that’s part of the growing pains when you’re playing a true freshman quarterback,” Scott said. “The goal is not to make the same mistakes that we made today as we’re moving forward.”

Early deficits remain an issue

A consistent theme for USF so far this year has been the fact that the Bulls are not a strong first half team. With the exception of their win against FAMU, they have been downright awful in the opening 30 minutes.

Including Saturday’s game against SMU, the Bulls have been outscored 107-36 in the first half with the Mustangs being up 17-3 at halftime. 

While an early deficit might not mean much in blowout games like the season opener against NC State, a 45-0 loss, it becomes much more relevant in games such as the ones against Florida and BYU.

In both of those games the Bulls comeback efforts ultimately fell short because they didn’t have enough time to make up ground.

In the Sept. 11 loss to the Gators, USF trailed 35-3 at the half but went on to outscore UF 17-7 over the final two quarters. Against BYU, the Cougars jumped out to a 28-6 lead at the break but USF made a game out of it by winning the second half 21-7, once again too, little too late.

When playing some of the top teams in the nation, falling into a large early deficit is never a recipe for success, even with a strong second half.

Jimmy Horn Jr. with a potential breakout game

One of the bright spots of the loss came in the form of freshman wide receiver Jimmy Horn Jr. who caught five passes for 102 yards, including a 37-yard reception that proved to be USF’s longest offensive play of the day.

Prior to Saturday’s game, Horn caught just four balls for a total of 22 yards including two games in which he didn’t register any receptions.

Horn, who has been teammates with McClain since their time together at Seminole High School in Sanford, was a three-star recruit coming into college and the No. 128 receiver in the class of 2021.

With a performance he had against SMU, and his established relationship with McClain, Horn could start seeing himself receive a larger role in the offense moving forward.