TALLAHASSEE — For a majority of a damp, overcast Saturday in the Panhandle, all the newfangled components of USF football were complemented by a distinct element from a bygone decade
The Bulls had 11th-ranked FSU — and its veteran quarterback — on the ropes. Their run fits were causing fits. They were converging to the ball and collecting momentum, all without the blemish of a single penalty flag.
"It was a beautiful thing in that first half," senior husky Jamie Byrd said, "to see us all swarming to the ball and all just working as one defense."
But their most critical fundamental — tackling — betrayed them when it mattered most. As a result, the Bulls were burned.
Or more specifically, Cooked.
'Noles sophomore Dalvin Cook's 30-carry, 266-yard performance — second-best by an FSU ball carrier in a game — broke a tie and, ultimately, USF's back. The last of his three touchdowns, a 37-yarder with 1:55 to play, wrapped up a 34-14 FSU triumph before a Doak Campbell Stadium crowd of 72,811.
"Cook's the real deal," Bulls coach Willie Taggart said.
More than half of Cook's yardage total (135 yards) came on his three touchdown runs, including a 74-yarder with 4:45 to play in the first quarter. Subtract them, and the Bulls (1-1), who have lost their past eight to ranked teams, might have a performance on which they can hang their helmets.
They took a 7-all tie into halftime after harassing senior quarterback Everett Golson into a woeful effort (1-for-9, 6 yards) through the first 30 minutes. Take away Cook's 74-yarder, and the Bulls outgained the 'Noles 122-36 to that point.
They might even have led, had Quinton Flowers' short fade pass toward 6-foot-6 tight end Kano Dillon in the end zone been a bit deeper instead of being intercepted by FSU cornerback Marquez White.
"That was the worst ball we have ever played," FSU offensive tackle Roderick Johnson said.
"The first half was great," Bulls defensive end Eric Lee said. "We came in here ready to win the game, that was our mentality. Reads, fits, running to the ball — everything like that was on our mind."
The momentum evaporated before the bands found their way back to the bleachers. Kermit Whitfield's 56-yard kick return to open the second half set up Cook's 24-yard TD run four plays later. After the Bulls went five plays and out, Cook's 50-yard run on second and 10 set up kicker Roberto Aguayo's 30-yard chip shot, giving FSU a 17-7 lead.
"We knew it wasn't going to just take one guy, we had to gang tackle (Cook)," Taggart said. "We missed too many tackles and he got a lot of big plays off missed tackles and you just can't do that against a really good football team."
The next FSU drive was a glimpse of Golson, circa 2012. The Notre Dame transfer went 4-for-5 for 73 yards, capped by a 23-yard scoring pass to Bobo Wilson. Four plays before, Bulls middle linebacker Auggie Sanchez — the defensive signal caller — was whistled for targeting Golson a moment after Golson tossed an incompletion. Though replays appeared to indicate his hit was below head level, Sanchez must sit out the first half of next week's game at Maryland.
"(The official) thought he went up high and hit him. That's what he told me," said Taggart, whose team was whistled for only two penalties the entire game. "He thought he'd err on the side of targeting and that's what they did."
The Bulls trimmed their deficit to 10 when Flowers (12-for-24, 125 yards, two TDs) found backup tailback D'Ernest Johnson isolated on a wheel route for a 71-yard touchdown, their second scoring hookup of the day and fourth in two contests.
A last-gasp opportunity was squandered midway through the fourth when, with USF trailing 27-14, Flowers found freshman Chris Barr over the middle and junior Austin Aikens down the right sideline on consecutive passes. Neither receiver came up with the ball.
A tantalizing opportunity, like Cook, slipped through their grasp.
"I was very proud of our players with their effort and the way they played considering what they went through this week," said Taggart, whose team held a memorial service for former defensive lineman Elkino Watson — killed in an Ybor City stabbing last weekend — on Tuesday.
"Really resilient group of guys. … We did a lot of good things but we didn't do enough to win the ballgame."
Contact Joey Knight at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.