Poor late-game play calling and an inability to move the ball in the second half doomed the Bulls as they fell to the Golden Hurricane 32-31 for their 13th consecutive conference loss.
Clinging to a 31-26 lead with 4:26 remaining in the game, coach Jeff Scott decided to go for it on fourth and one from his own 46-yard line on a direct snap to junior running back Jaren Mangham, which was stuffed by the Tulsa defense. The play came directly after a similar call on third down saw Mangham receive the snap and run between the tackles.
Failure to get the first down ultimately led to Tulsa’s game-winning drive, which put the Golden Hurricane (3-4, 2-1 AAC) up with 47 seconds left to play.
“It was four minutes to go, you get the first down, you feel like you win the game,” Scott said. “And yeah, we could’ve punted it, … but we said we were going to attack, we’re going to be aggressive and we felt like we had the right call. And unfortunately, we didn’t make the play to get it done.
“You got to execute. We didn’t do that so I’ll take that on me and on us coaches.”
Outside of a pair of touchdowns, one of which came thanks to a short field due to a turnover, USF’s offense couldn’t get much going for the majority of the game, generating just 268 yards of total offense and having about 10 minutes less in time of possession.
Despite the lack of overall offensive production, USF (1-5, 0-2 AAC) held a pair of double-digit leads that it quickly saw evaporate, namely a 14 point advantage midway through the second quarter when it seemed like all the momentum was in the Bulls favor.
The Bulls not only returned an interception for a touchdown, courtesy of senior linebacker Antonio Grier, but they also logged their first kickoff return score since the 2018 season via a 100-yard scamper from sophomore Brian Battie.
However, a Tulsa field goal and a fumble on the ensuing kickoff led to another Golden Hurricane score and the Bulls’ lead quickly dwindled to four just before halftime.
The main reason USF managed to mount such a large first-half advantage was because of the strong play by the team’s defense who vastly improved on its previous performances and put the offense in favorable positions.
The Bulls’ defense also managed to get off the field on key third downs, with a pair of punts and a turnover on downs to start the second half, something that has been a struggle over the previous few weeks.
“Defensively, I felt like we did some good things and if we would have done better offensively, I think those defensive stops would have been the difference for us,” Scott said.
Considered to be the weaker link for the team, USF’s defense showed out against one of statistically the best offenses in the conference ranked in the top five in total offense. The Bulls managed to exploit one of Tulsa’s big flaws on that side of the ball.
The Golden Hurricane was the worst team in the AAC in terms of turnover margin at -2, with five total turnovers going into Saturday’s game. Glenn Spencer’s unit forced the Golden Hurricane into three first-half turnovers.
Grier was at the heart of two takeaways that directly led to USF points.
The senior forced and recovered a fumble by Tulsa running back Anthony Watkins on the first play of the second quarter that eventually set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Mangham, his 10th of the season.
Grier took matters into his own hands on his second turnover as he intercepted quarterback Davis Brin’s pass and returned it 69 yards for the score. He knew there would be opportunities for himself and the rest of the defense to take advantage of given Tulsa’s track record.
“We watch [Tulsa’s] film together,” he said. “We were like ‘This is the play, this the coverage we’re going to be in, this is where we need to be, [Davis] is going to throw it to you.’ Really, verbatim that’s [what we said] in our meeting and that’s what happened so we took advantage of it as a team.”
Following potentially the most heartbreaking loss of the season, USF’s 17th consecutive defeat at the hands of an FBS team, the Bulls seemed to be in complete control for most of the contest. Scott’s biggest disappointment came not from the loss alone, but from seeing how hard his team played and his role in the defeat.
“We’re definitely getting closer,” Scott said. “And I’m proud of the effort of our guys and I’m really hurt for them and wish I could have put them in some better situations to be able to finish the game.”