Takeaways: McClain shows off elusiveness, defensive issues cost Bulls against Houston

Freshman quarterback Timmy McClain (with ball) finished with collegiate career highs in passing attempts and passing yards. ORACLE PHOTO/LEDA ALVIM

The Bulls took a halftime lead into the locker room for the fourth consecutive game during Saturday’s matchup against Houston, but just as they did against Tulsa and East Carolina, they were bested in the second half and eventually lost.

Sophomore running back Brian Battie scored three touchdowns and freshman quarterback Timmy McClain extended and made multiple plays, but it wasn’t enough to overcome USF’s defensive shortcomings.

Here are five things we learned from USF’s 54-42 loss against the Cougars.

McClain is special

Houston came into Saturday’s game leading the nation in sacks with 34. The Cougars didn’t log one against USF, but that wasn’t because the offensive line had an exceptional day.

Play after play, it seemed as if McClain was making something out of nothing, alluding potential tacklers and allowing for some of his weapons to get open down the field. Tight ends Mitchell Brinkman and Chris Carter were each on the receiving end of touchdowns after the freshman quarterback extended the play on two separate occasions.

Two interceptions and a 48% completion percentage may lead some to believe McClain had a mediocre night, but his ability to freestyle and give his teammates opportunities proves otherwise.

Run defense continues to be an issue

USF ranks 120th out of 130 FBS teams in terms of rush yards allowed per game, and that held true against Houston, as the Cougars ran for 261 yards at 6.7 yards per carry.

The biggest blow came in the third quarter when junior running back Ta’Zhawn Henry took a handoff 97 yards to the house, a critical play in the game that not only extended Houston’s lead to 12 points, but also wiped away an impressive punt from freshman punter Andrew Stokes that set USF up nicely to potentially flip field position.

Grier, Boyles should be used as pass rushers

Through the first nine games of the season, the Bulls have logged just seven sacks, tied with Vanderbilt for the least in the FBS.

Although they got to the quarterback twice against Houston, it’s pretty clear the pass rush situation is not working.

Senior linebackers Antonio Grier and Dwayne Boyles have been used a lot in coverage this season, a contrast to what they did early in their collegiate careers when they were used as pass rushers more often.

Although each has arguably performed well in their new responsibilities, the Bulls may see it useful to use two of their most talented defensive playmakers in a category where they desperately need help.

Running backs need more touches

Battie has averaged 6.2 yards per carry this season and now has three kickoff returns for touchdowns. He’s an explosive playmaker that makes the most of his opportunities.

Similar to sophomore Kelley Joiner Jr., Battie is a shifty back. They are complemented by junior running back Jaren Mangham who is a bit stronger in his playstyle. Mangham leads the team in attempts, rushing yards and, most notably, rushing touchdowns, as he has 13 with three games left to play.

Running the ball has been a strength for USF so far this season, but the trio of backs only combined for 14 rushes against the Cougars. Although Houston’s defensive front is talented, which is likely why the Bulls leaned more on McClain’s abilities in the passing game, establishing the run is crucial for success down the stretch of the season.

Bulls desperately need depth

Coach Jeff Scott spoke candidly after the loss about what he believes is the reason for his team’s defensive struggles this season, noting USF’s lack of depth on that side of the ball.

“It’s the same thing that’s happened really all year long, we’re playing with about 15-16 [defensive] guys and we’ve got to find a way to play better,” Scott said. “You can say what you want, but it wasn’t [an] effort [issue]. Their guys just made more plays, and we’ve got to try to find ways as a coaching staff to help our guys be better in the second half.

“Ultimately, we’re going to do better when we’re able to recruit more depth on defense, but there’s nothing you can do about that during the season, it is what it is. I appreciate their effort and I appreciate them playing hard, and I wish I could help them as a coach.”

The Bulls have recently secured the commitments of a pair of defensive playmakers who could potentially make an impact as early as next season. Freshman defensive tackle Nick Bags announced Nov. 5 his intention to transfer to USF from Temple, and three-star defensive lineman Eddie Kelly from West Orange High School committed to the Bulls via Twitter on Saturday.