EAST LANSING, Mich. — As much as USF's offense had struggled to move the ball Saturday afternoon, the Bulls still found themselves trailing just 7-6 in the third quarter, and at the Michigan State 34-yard line, driving for a potential lead.
Then a microcosm sequence: a dropped pass, a false start, then quarterback Bobby Eveld was blindsided as he threw, and defensive end Shilique Calhoun returned the interception 56 yards for a touchdown.
It was Calhoun's second score off of an Eveld turnover, and Michigan State rode those two defensive scores to a 21-6 win before a crowd of 70,401 at Spartan Stadium.
"That hurt us. We were right there," USF coach Willie Taggart said. "We had the ball, (were) moving the ball, had the chance to change the game and really give our guys some confidence. We didn't take advantage of that opportunity, and we have to do that as a football team."
USF (0-2) showed vast improvement on defense from last week's 53-21 loss to McNeese State, but the offense — 155 yards Saturday, with two total red-zone appearances in two games — has a long way to go.
Eveld faced constant pressure and his statistics showed it as he finished 6-for-25 for 66 yards.
The Bulls went 1-for-13 on third downs, but Taggart focused his disappointment on everything around his senior quarterback.
"Six-for-25 wasn't just Bobby," he said. "Pressure on the quarterback had a lot to do with it. Bobby can't throw the ball when he's on his back. He can't complete passes when you drop the ball. It's a combined effort. Bobby's going to play well when his teammates play well."
Defensively, the Bulls were worlds better than last week's 53-21 loss to I-AA McNeese State, not allowing an offensive point until the fourth quarter, when a 15-yard punt set the Spartans up for a 33-yard touchdown drive.
"All the guys stayed positive and stayed together," said senior linebacker DeDe Lattimore, who had a career-best 15 tackles.
Down 7-3 with 13 seconds before half, facing third and goal at the 7, Taggart called for a Marcus Shaw run, which got to the 2. Rather than gamble for a go-ahead touchdown on fourth down, USF took a 21-yard field goal, trailing 7-6 at the half.
"Even if it doesn't reflect your play, you're still going to blame yourself," Eveld said of the offensive woes. "I feel I could have done a lot more to help us. … I didn't get the job done."
Eveld didn't learn until Saturday morning that he was starting over sophomore Matt Floyd, who threw two interceptions in last week's loss. Taggart said he intends to stick with Eveld, barring a bad week of practice.
"I personally don't think Bobby did anything to hurt us," Taggart said. "You're talking about turnovers. He got hit in the back."
Michigan State's first touchdown came when Eveld was sacked on his 11 and fumbled, and Calhoun scooped up the loose ball at the 4 for an easy touchdown and a 7-0 lead in the second quarter. Opposing defenses have three touchdowns on Bulls turnovers, as many as the Bulls have scored in their two games.
USF's only consistent play on offense came from Shaw's 94 yards on 23 carries. Michigan State (2-0) had allowed 11 rushing yards on 27 carries in its opening win against Western Michigan.
Taggart was frustrated by eight penalties for 55 yards, sapping momentum with timely flags.
"We didn't improve offensively," Taggart said. "I thought defensively and on special teams we did. We knew we were going against a good defense, but I still think we could execute a lot better."
The Bulls now return home for what should be a winnable game against Florida Atlantic, which has been outscored 65-19 in losses to Miami and East Carolina.
Greg Auman can be reached at [email protected]