USF’s comeback attempt falls short in offensive showdown against Memphis

The Bulls offense totaled a season-high in points but failed to score on its opening drive for the third consecutive week in their 59-50 loss against Memphis. USF ATHLETICS PHOTO

USF football has made multiple comebacks throughout the season. 

It started down two scores in its 44-30 win against Navy on Sept. 30 and came back from a double-digit fourth-quarter deficit to beat UConn 24-21 on Oct. 21. 

However, its comeback efforts wouldn’t materialize against Memphis on Saturday at Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium.

The Bulls (4-5, 2-3 AAC) would attempt to climb back from another two-score deficit in their 59-50 loss to the 13.5-point favorite Tigers (7-2, 4-1 AAC). 

Bulls coach Alex Golesh said he’s trying to figure out why the team starts games slowly.

“We can’t keep living that way,” Golesh said “And I’ve got to find a way to fix that.”

USF would cut the margin to seven four times in the first half.

Junior wide receiver Khafre Brown blocked Memphis’ punt with 34 seconds remaining in the second quarter. It would be returned 22 yards to put the Bulls on the Tigers’ nine-yard line.

The Bulls ended the first half down 35-28 after redshirt freshman quarterback Byrum Brown threw a two-yard touchdown to senior tight end Jayson Littlejohn. 

USF tied the game on their opening drive in the third quarter. Memphis would respond with a field goal.

The Bulls took the lead on their next drive 42-38 with just under seven minutes remaining.

Golesh said he was encouraged that the team showed resolve in the face of adversity.

“The sideline stuck together,” he said. “There was a lot of positivity between both sides of the ball. They kept encouraging each other and kept fighting.” 

Brown completed 31 of his 39 passes for 357 passing yards. He added 100 yards on the ground with 23 attempts. His five passing touchdowns on Saturday tied a 21-year-old program record set by former quarterback Marquel Blackwell in 2002.

Brown helped lead the Bulls’ comeback efforts, but he said there was room for improvement in his individual as well as the team’s performance.

“We should’ve scored more in my opinion,” Brown said.

He lost his grip on the ball on the Bulls’ opening drive as he attempted a pass. It was ruled a fumble. 

The Tigers recovered the ball toward the sidelines and returned it to USF’s three-yard line. 

One play later it was 14-0 with over roughly 11 minutes of play left in the first quarter.

Brown threw an interception on a pass intended for sophomore wide receiver Jaden Alexis with just over two minutes left in the third quarter.

Alexis was unable to make a play on the ball because he collided with a Tigers defender. 

A pass interference wasn’t called.

Golesh said the no-pass interference call was “the most insane thing” he’s ever seen, but doesn’t see that play as the reason they lost.

The Bulls gave up 580 yards of offense and allowed the most points in a game program history. They’ve given up at least 50 points in three of their last four games.

The team’s run defense was solid, only giving up 139 rushing yards. But, like many times this season, most of the damage was done through the air. 

Tigers quarterback Seth Henigan completed 23 of his 40 passes for 441 passing yards. Most of those yards were created by the Tigers’ wide receivers. 

They combined for 238 yards after the catch.

Henigan would lead Memphis down the field to score on five of its first seven drives. However, none of those scores would deter the Bulls’ comeback hopes. 

Memphis would sub out Hannigan with just over 13 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter to mend a left shoulder injury he aggravated earlier in the game.

Redshirt freshman quarterback Tevin Carter entered as a substitute.

Carter threw a nine-yard pass on his first snap to junior wide receiver Roc Taylor. Taylor would break USF cornerback Braxton Clark’s tackle Memphis 27-yard line while running for an 85-yard touchdown.

The score put Memphis up 52-42 with just under 13 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. Golesh said that while the Bulls need to do a better job of tackling, it also falls on coaching.

“You gotta get the freaking guy down,” Golesh said. “Again, we got to put them in position to get them down and we got to get them down at the end of the day.” 

Sean Atkins finished the game with nine catches and 89 receiving yards. On third and seven with just over eight minutes remaining, Atkins caught a pass for six yards but couldn’t give the Bulls a first down.

He caught a pass on fourth and one but turned the ball over on downs. 

Atkins emphasized that the Bulls need to address their slow offensive starts in practice.

“It kind of just takes like a little punch in the face for us to get going,” Atkins said. “We have to fix our practice, we have to start faster.”

Golesh said he continues to admire the Bulls’ ability to ‘keep on swinging’ when down early.

But the next step in their process towards rebuilding is landing the first punch.

“I’ll take this crew and go fight anybody, anywhere,” Golesh said. “But we have to get exponentially better at how we start the football game.”