USF’s defense disappoints in homecoming loss to Houston

Sophomore running back Brian Battie logged two 100-yard kick returns and a 29-yard touchdown run in USF’s loss to Houston on Saturday. ORACLE PHOTO/LEDA ALVIM

Despite a season-high scoring output and a historic special teams performance, the USF football team couldn’t slow down Houston’s offense in a 54-42 loss in its homecoming game Saturday night.

The Bulls (2-7, 1-4 AAC) held a 28-26 lead at halftime. In fact, it was the fourth consecutive week with an advantage at the break. After Saturday’s loss, they have just one win to show from it.

“Hats off to Houston, I thought they played excellent in the second half,” coach Jeff Scott said. “We just got beat, it wasn’t an effort thing, they were just better than us in the second half. It wasn’t even close, and that’s disappointing.

“We had opportunities … to pull off a nice upset versus a really good team, but ultimately they were able to execute better than we could.”

The Bulls gave up 646 yards to a Cougars’ (8-1, 6-0 AAC) offense that scored at virtual will throughout the night. Of their seven touchdown drives, two were under a minute and none lasted even three minutes.

A major factor in those quick Houston drives was the threat of cornerback Marcus Jones’ kick returns. With four return touchdowns this season and nine in his career, the Bulls were content to kick to anyone but Jones. USF conceded good field position on multiple occasions in exchange for eliminating Jones.

Although Jones was thought to be the main attraction in terms of kick return ability leading up to the game, the contest got off to the perfect start for USF as sophomore running back Brian Battie took the opening kickoff back 100 yards, sparking the homecoming crowd into a frenzy.

He would continue his impressive first half with a 29-yard touchdown run on the Bulls’ second offensive drive and another 100-yard kickoff return late in the second quarter. Added to his return touchdown against Tulsa, Battie now holds the program’s single-season and career kickoff return touchdown records.

“We were game planning real hard for [Jones] over there during kickoff,” Battie said. “Coach Scott just kept saying ‘They’re doing all the talking about their kickoff returner, we’re going to show them about ours.’

“We took what he said and believed it and just did what we had to do. I wouldn’t say we really threw them in the mud, but we outperformed them tonight as a unit.”

The Cougars came out of the half firing, reaching the endzone on each of their first three drives after the break. By the end of their points binge, the game had been flipped on its head for good.

The 54 points allowed is the most this season for the Bulls’ defense. With the depth issues well-documented due to a number of injuries, the unit’s performance suffered as the game dragged on.

“Looking at our defense, we’re banged up, we don’t have a lot of guys out there playing … We’ve got to recruit more depth, ultimately, to be able to get better defensively,” Scott said.

USF’s running game, a phase of the offense that has shown real promise in recent weeks, sputtered against a Cougars defense that ranks best in the AAC in rushing yards and total yards allowed.

“It’s hard to have some rhythm [to the offense] when we couldn’t run the ball,” Scott said. “We knew it would be challenging [against Houston’s defensive front], but we just kept giving [the ball] back to them. They’re too good of an offense, too good of a team, to keep giving it back to them, and ultimately it caught up with us.”

With the ground game struggling, the offense turned to freshman quarterback Timmy McClain to chase down Houston. Looking like himself again after an ankle injury suffered against Temple, and missing last week’s contest against East Carolina, he finished 22-of-46 passing for 289 yards and a couple of touchdown passes created by his elusive scrambling ability.

“He’s one of the toughest kids I’ve ever played with,” graduate student tight end Mitchell Brinkman said. “He takes pride in the stuff he puts on film and the way he plays … We really don’t know when the play is going to end when he has the ball.

“A couple of times we thought [the play was dead], then all of a sudden he scrambles [away from pressure] and makes something out of nothing. He’s extremely talented and a lot of fun to play with.”

Scott lamented the team’s record, insisting the attitude within the locker room is not one of a 2-7 team.

“I still believe, because the way these guys are pushing, I believe there’s going to be [a] big positive finish for us, and I believe our players believe the same thing,” he said.

As a senior in his sixth year with the team, Brinkman sees real potential in the group that hasn’t translated into wins just yet.

“I’ve played a lot of college football, I know how close this team is,” Brinkman said. “I’m doing the best I can to keep their heads up, [but] they’re doing a great job.

“Our culture, everybody’s bought into [what’s being coached], how we’re playing … We can see watching the film [that] we’re getting better and better each and every week. We’re hoping to play our best football the last three weeks.”

The Bulls will host No. 6 Cincinnati on Friday at 6 p.m. for Senior Night. The game will be televised on ESPN2 and broadcast on 95.3/620 WDAE/iHeartRadio Bulls Unlimited.