TAMPA — In the surprising absence of a key defensive leader, USF's defense got a terrific first start from freshman Tashon Whitehurst, who led the Bulls with eight tackles and had a key fumble recovery in the fourth quarter of Saturday's 13-6 win against Connecticut.
"I felt great coming into this game, just came in trying to get a win, to go out there for my team," said Whitehurst, who entered with one tackle in his college career. "The fumble recovery, I was coming off the edge on a blitz, and the running back, he was already fumbling. The ball slipped out right there and I fell on it."
Whitehurst was pressed into a starting role due to the suspension of senior LB Sam Barrington, the Bulls' leading tackler who was arrested Thursday in Orlando in yet another case of driving with a suspended license with knowledge.
It's at least his sixth such citation in his time at USF. He was arrested three times in 2009-10 and again in Tampa in August and September. He has a court date Monday to address those citations and outstanding fines of $465.
Barrington is expected to return in two weeks, but Whitehurst made a case for continued playing time as well as solid contention for a starting role next season after Barrington graduates.
"When you're a backup, you're waiting for your time, and when they call your name, there's two things: You can say, 'Oh, no,' or say, 'I've been waiting for this,' " defensive coordinator Chris Cosh said. "He looked at me like, 'It's about time you called my name.' I'm proud of the way he stepped up and competed."
CAREER BEST: Senior Maikon Bonani has now connected on 64 field goals in his USF career, but the longest came in the fourth quarter Saturday as Bonani hit a 50-yarder with 4:26 left to give the Bulls a 13-6 lead.
"Last week gave me a lot of confidence, going 5-for-5," said Bonani, who had USF's only points after the first quarter. "I looked at (holder Justin) Brockhaus and we kind of smiled at each other: 'Just another kick.' I was glad it went through. It was a huge kick for us."
NEW STARTERS: Injuries forced USF to debut new starters on both sides of the ball: Whitehurst on defense and freshman TE Sean Price and redshirt freshman G Brynjar Gudmundsson on offense, filling in for injured seniors Evan Landi and Danous Estenor. Price had three catches for 45 yards.
THIS AND THAT: Staff Sgt. Matt Sitton, the brother of USF walk-on Jonny Sitton and an Indian Rocks Christian graduate who was killed in Afghanistan in August, was honored by USF with family members on the field, drawing loud applause from the fans in attendance. … USF walk-on David Aristil, an All-American hurdler who played on kick coverage, is done for the season after breaking his right arm in Thursday's practice. … Junior Marcus Shaw started at running back but had limited success, totaling 34 yards on 11 carries with a long of 8.