Murray-and-Mo Show leads USF to 24-12 win
TAMPA -- If you needed proof that USF's offense lacked reliable players who can cleanly catch the ball, consider that with four minutes left Saturday night and the Bulls clinging to a 12-point lead against a Western Kentucky team that had lost 23 games in a row, coach Skip Holtz sent quarterback B.J. Daniels out on the field as part of his "hands team" against a Hilltoppers onsides kick.
Daniels fielded the kick and USF held on for a 24-12 victory against the lowly Hilltoppers, but the play stood out on a night when Daniels played a tiny role, throwing and running for just 87 yards of total offense. With three starting receivers out with injuries, the Bulls passed the ball only 11 times, one more than the program's all-time low, and threw for 57 yards, a record low in 14 seasons.
Asked about the 44 carries vs. 11 passes, Holtz pointed to his last game, when turnovers doomed the Bulls in a loss at No. 8 Florida.
"I don't know if you watched the Florida game, but we were 5-of-20 with four interceptions," Holtz said.
USF (2-1) got a career-best 115 yards from sophomore Demetris Murray, rotating in with senior starter Mo Plancher, who had 79 yards and a touchdown. The Bulls, who led WKU (0-4) just 7-0 at halftime, took a shutout into the fourth quarter, but ended up outgained by a team they were favored to beat by 27 points.
"We'll smile tonight. We'll scream tomorrow," said Holtz, whose team has another light opponent in Florida Atlantic (1-2) before opening Big East play against Syracuse on Oct. 9. "Fifty percent of the country would trade places with us today. I told the team there's no such thing as an ugly win."
It was certainly ugly early -- the first half saw two teams combine to miss five field goals, and Daniels threw a costly interception late in the first half for the second game in a row. Leading just 7-0, the Bulls marched 82 yards on the opening drive of the second half, with Plancher and Murray combining for 52 yards on the drive. A 67-yard punt return by true freshman Terrence Mitchell -- Holtz called it "electric" and "phenomenal" -- set up another short touchdown for a 21-0 lead.
The defense held WKU in check, carrying a shutout into the fourth quarter, and the Bulls' kicking issues -- two missed field goals -- ended when sophomore Maikon Bonani took over for senior Eric Schwartz and made the final extra point and a 33-yard field goal in the fourth.
The offensive spark came from Murray, who rushed for 33 yards on his first drive, then bolted 39 yards down the USF sideline on the next drive, getting another 15 yards on a facemask penalty. That set up Plancher's 13-yard scamper for the game's first touchdown, setting the tone for the Murray-and-Mo combo working well all night.
"It's a great thing -- I like the rhythm we have going on," Murray said. "Whenever one of us gets tired, we can roll in and keep it going. ... We've got to get the passing game going,, so that can open up the run and help it even more."
Daniels didn't have a pass or run longer than 17 yards, and for the second game in a row, he threw an interception late in the first half with USF holding a 7-0 lead. Against Florida, his pick set up the Gators' first touchdown, and on Saturday, Kiante Young's 32-yard return put WKU on the USF 12 with 40 seconds left in the half. But safety Jon Lejiste forced a fumble on a blitz for an 11-yard loss, then a false start backed WKU up to the USF 29, leading to a missed field goal.
"Awesome to see. It's a step in the right direction. ... We have to keep getting better. Obviously we're not where we need to be," defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said. "But I wasn't disappointed in our performance tonight, by no means."
Getting the ball to open the second half, the Bulls marched 82 yards with only two passes. Plancher carried the load, gaining 37 yards on seven carries, then Murray spelled him with a 15-yard run to set up fullback Richard Kelly's 2-yard score for a 14-0 lead.
USF's defense forced a punt, and true freshman Terrence Mitchell fielded it after a high bounce, weaving through the Hilltoppers for an electric 67-yard return that set up the Bulls on the WKU 12. It took seven plays from there, but Daniels punched it in on a 1-yard keeper for a 21-0 lead.