TAMPA — USF's offense continues to pile up yards and points and big plays, but the Bulls' defense and special teams raised new concerns Saturday, struggling for much of the Bulls' 52-24 win against UTEP in the final tuneup before their Big East opener Thursday at Pittsburgh.
"I've got a hole in my stomach with the amount of mistakes we made," coach Skip Holtz said. "Some of the mistakes that we made I don't think are probably the mistakes that a good football team makes. … There's a lot of positive things here, but right now, I know the standard we have and where we want to go, how good they want to be. … Can we get there? That's what we play the season for."
The No. 18 Bulls (4-0) were in control, leading by at least 14 points for almost the final three quarters, but Holtz was disappointed by missed assignments on defense that allowed the Miners (2-2) to amass 339 yards, plus another 251 on kickoff returns for strong field position.
"We still have a lot of work to do and can definitely continue to get better," said quarterback B.J. Daniels, who had a 71-yard rushing touchdown on USF's second offensive play on his way to a team-high 130 yards rushing and another 202 in the air. "It shows we're not perfect. We were able to put up numbers, but we have to not get complacent and just continue to improve."
The Bulls rushed for 373 yards, 4 short of the school record, with three touchdowns of longer than 50 yards, as many as they totaled all of last season. Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder was encouraged by his team's halftime adjustments, holding UTEP to 105 yards in the second half and getting three takeaways, including linebacker Sam Barrington's 30-yard interception return for a touchdown.
"The first half was a barrage of mistakes. … Those were self-inflicted wounds in the first half," Snyder said. "I thought the kids came out and played a really good second half. … It wasn't tackling. It was blown assignments, guys not being where they're supposed to be. … The nonconference is a warmup, and now you're playing for real."
The scare wasn't just on the scoreboard — USF had one of its top young players motionless on the field in the fourth quarter when return man Terrence Mitchell made a running, head-on tackle on a UTEP fake punt. Mitchell was carted off on a stretcher and taken to a local hospital, but Holtz was grateful it was a head injury and not a neck injury, that Mitchell had feeling and movement and was responsive in the hospital.
After beating Ball State 37-7 and Florida A&M 70-17 in easy home wins the previous two weeks, USF jumped to a 21-7 lead in the first quarter, getting Daniels' long touchdown and short scoring runs by running backs Darrell Scott and Demetris Murray. After UTEP pulled within 21-14 on an 88-yard touchdown drive, USF got a 67-yard run on an option play by receiver Victor Marc for a 31-14 halftime lead.
Daniels hit receiver Lindsey Lamar for a 54-yard touchdown and a 38-17 lead in the third quarter, but UTEP again pulled closer, converting a fourth-and-inches play with a 25-yard touchdown to a wide-open tight end Kevin Perry.
USF put the game away with 14 points in a span of 14 seconds midway through the fourth quarter — Lamar scored a second touchdown on an 18-yard pass from Daniels, then Barrington got his first career interception and returned it all the way to punctuate the defense's second-half turnaround.
"The biggest motivation coming out of this game is just the flaws we had as a defense," Barrington said. "Missed assignments, we just need to tighten up and polish those things before we get to Pitt. You have to have a short memory. We're going to prepare this short week that we've got, and hopefully we can go into Pitt and come out with a W."