Slow start costs Bulls in upset bid against No. 5 Cincinnati

Sophomore safety Christian Williams hauled in the first interception of his collegiate career Friday night against Cincinnati. ORACLE PHOTO/LEDA ALVIM

The Bulls kept pace with No. 5 Cincinnati in the second half of Friday night’s contest, but a poor performance on both sides of the ball in the opening two quarters ultimately sunk USF’s hopes of an upset in the 45-28 loss.

Cincinnati (10-0, 6-0 AAC) came into the game as one of the highest-touted teams in the nation, given its No. 2 ranking in the AP Poll and No. 5 designation in the college football playoff rankings. 

That high-level talent showed itself in the first half as the Bearcats outscored the Bulls (2-8, 1-5 AAC) 24-7, outgained them in yards 260-39 and won the time of possession 16:10 to 13:50.

“I think for us, we just dug too big of a hole there in the first half,” coach Jeff Scott said. “[We] had an opportunity there in the first quarter, [we] got off to a pretty good start there, I think it was 7-7 there at the end of the first quarter.

“Just the second quarter, we couldn’t get enough going on offense and [we] couldn’t stop them on defense.”

USF’s defense opened the night on a high note with a pair of takeaways on Cincinnati’s first two drives. One of those turnovers, an interception returned 61 yards to the Bearcats’ 2-yard line by sophomore safety Christian Williams, led to the Bulls scoring the first points of the game via a short rush from junior running back Jaren Mangham.

The Bearcats proceeded to score on their next four drives before the break, notching three touchdowns and a field goal along the way to take a 17-point advantage into halftime.

Beyond Mangham’s touchdown, his 14th of the year, there weren’t many positives for  USF’s offense in the opening half. 

Freshman quarterback Timmy McClain went into the locker room just 4-of-8 for 21 yards and an interception, and the rushing attack mustered a mere 18 yards.

The second half was much kinder to USF’s offense. A 12-play, 75-yard drive followed by an 80-yard catch and run from freshman receiver Jimmy Horn Jr. cut the deficit to 10 going into the fourth quarter.

McClain went 12-of-21 for 224 yards, a touchdown and an interception in the second half.

“It’s encouraging to me,” Scott said of Horn’s big play. “If you look out there, a lot of guys that were making plays are all young … You look at Timmy being a freshman, you look at Jimmy being a freshman, Jaren, [sophomore running back Brian Battie], Weaver’s still got a couple years left, so that part’s encouraging.

“We’ve got a lot of guys that are playing [and] getting some good experience. It’ll be our time at some point. If these guys continue to respond the way they have, I’m more confident than I’ve ever been that we’ve got really big things ahead of us.”

Friday’s game also served as senior day for many of USF’s upperclassmen. Due to the NCAA giving all athletes an extra year of eligibility because of the COVID-19-altered season last year, many of the players had a choice to make in whether or not they wanted to return to the program in 2022. The team also had a decision to make on if they would grant them the opportunity to come back.

There were 16 seniors who had a choice to make, according to Scott, and after meeting with each of them, he was floored with each of their desires to return to the team.

“I met with [16 players] on Monday to talk about senior day and give them the opportunity to decide if this was going to be it for them or if they wanted to come back for another year,” Scott said. “Honestly, going into it, [I] was telling the staff, ‘I bet eight of these guys will come back [and] eight of them [will leave.]’ … [But] 16 out of 16 told me they were coming back.

“They said they believe in what we’re doing and there’s no way in the world that they’re going to leave and be somewhere else next year watching us on TV take off. For me, that’s the biggest confirmation that we’re on our way … I’ll let those guys make those comments [if they’re coming back], but there was a reason they weren’t at senior day.”

In total, 10 seniors were honored ​​including defensive linemen Blake Green, Kevin Kegler, Thad Mangum, Kelvin Pinkney and Ryan Thaxton, offensive linemen Jarrett Hopple and Michael Wiggs, defensive backs Keyon Helton and Brock Nichols and tight end Mitchell Brinkman.

Notable senior omissions from the ceremonies were offensive linemen Brad Cecil, Demetris Harris and Donovan Jennings, linebackers Antonio Grier and Dwayne Boyles, defensive backs Mekhi LaPointe and Vincent Davis, defensive lineman Rashawn Yates and wide receiver Bryce Miller, among others.

In a press conference Tuesday, it was confirmed Cecil, Harris, Grier and Jennings would be back in 2022.

Looking ahead, Scott said he sees the upcoming eight-day break as an advantage and an opportunity to get healthy before USF’s penultimate game of the season next week.

“We’ve got to learn from [the loss] and then we’ve got to move on,” Scott said. “I think it’s good that we played on Friday night. We had a lot of guys banged up and had some guys that were out tonight as well. So, having two days this weekend for those guys to rest up before a big week next week I think will be really good for us.

“We’ll learn from the lessons here and then we’ll move forward and look forward to going on the road to Tulane next Saturday.”

The Bulls and the Green Wave play Nov. 20 at noon in Yulman Stadium. The game will be streamed on ESPN+ and broadcast on 95.3/620 WDAE/iHeartRadio Bulls Unlimited.