Takeaways: Bulls show grit, keep up with No. 5 Cincinnati in second half

Junior running back Jaren Mangham scored his 14th and 15th touchdowns of the season against Cincinnati. ORACLE PHOTO/LEDA ALVIM

In its final home game of the season, USF football was unable to mount an upset against the No. 5 Cincinnati Bearcats on Friday following a subpar first half that left the Bulls with too big of a hole to climb out of.

USF went into the locker room down 17 to one of the best teams in the nation but managed to keep pace with the Bearcats in the second half with both teams scoring 21 points apiece over the final two quarters.

Ultimately, however, it wasn’t enough as Cincinnati didn’t allow the deficit to get below 10 points. Here are a few takeaways from the 45-28 loss.

Strong effort despite big deficit

Being down 24 points in the second half to a team ranked as high as Cincinnati isn’t ideal, but the Bulls never took their foot off the gas in their pursuit of a comeback.

Specifically, a goal-line stand in the third quarter stuck out to coach Jeff Scott as a play that showed grit.

“What I’m going to take from this game is our guys having their backs against the wall, first-and-goal at the [3-yard line],” Scott said. “I think at that point they were up 17, so a touchdown pretty much puts the game away [if] they go up [by] 24, [it’s] game over pretty much.

“First-and-goal at the 3 against the No. 2 team in the country, our guys fought four straight plays, held them out, got the ball at the 2-yard line and the offense went 98 yards against the No. 3 defense in the country.”

Half and half

Apart from its two wins against FAMU and Temple, USF has not been able to put together a complete performance through all four quarters. Much of the season has been a tale of two halves and that was the case once again against the Bearcats.

The Bulls have had first-half deficits of at least 10 points in five of their matchups this season, mostly against teams that at one point were ranked in the top 25.

In other losses, USF wasted strong performances in the first 30 minutes with collapses in the second half. The games against East Carolina, Houston and Tulsa were each prime examples, with the Bulls having the lead going into the half before putting in poor results the final two quarters.

The team will need to string together strong performances for a full 60 minutes if it wants to win one, or both, of its remaining games.

Pass rush problems

There was a huge divide between the teams in terms of pass rush talent. The Bearcats ended with three sacks, three quarterback hurries and had freshman quarterback Timmy McClain scrambling for much of the night.

On the opposite sideline, the Bulls failed to generate much pressure on Cincinnati’s quarterback Desmond Ridder. Sophomore defensive end Tramel Logan sacked Ridder in the second quarter, but there wasn’t much beyond that, as USF didn’t log a single quarterback hurry.

Getting to the quarterback has been an issue for much of the past two seasons for USF. The Bulls have tallied just 15 sacks in their past 19 games, six of those coming from senior linebacker Antonio Grier.

Injury bug bites

The Bulls sustained what appears to be at least some minor injuries in the loss to the Bearcats.

Senior offensive tackle Donovan Jennings didn’t play on USF’s final drive, junior receiver Xavier Weaver was dealing with a hamstring issue and sophomore running back Brian Battie went down with what looked to be some sort of leg problem, although he was cleared to come back in, according to Scott.

“I didn’t get anything to really know [what happened to Jennings],” Scott said. “They just said he was out [and] could not go back in. Weaver had a hamstring [issue]. Again, it doesn’t make it any better, we lost the game, but just being on the field, being with those guys … Weaver is over there begging to go back in … That’s just what I see from this group. In a difficult time, it just gives me a lot of encouragement.”

With an eight-day break until their next game against Tulane on Saturday, the Bulls will look to get healthy and prepare for the Green Wave.

Belief in the future

Despite having just three wins over his first two seasons leading the program, Scott’s confidence in the future of his team is stronger than ever, especially given the strong play of the younger players on the roster.

In addition to freshman wide receiver Jimmy Horn Jr.’s first career touchdown reception, the performance of McClain and running backs Jaren Mangham, Kelley Joiner Jr. and Brian Battie, all of whom still have years of eligibility left, gives Scott confidence moving forward.

“We got a lot of guys that are playing and getting some good experience,” he said. “And 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. We got really good things ahead of us.”