TAMPA — Saturday night was a checklist game for USF football, with a final tuneup against Florida Atlantic before Big East play opens next week against Syracuse.
Dominating on the scoreboard? Check. The Bulls controlled from the start in a 31-3 win before an announced crowd of 38,434 at Raymond James Stadium.
"Probably one of the most complete efforts, with offense, defense and kicking, that we've played so far this season," coach Skip Holtz said. "Tonight, it was a pretty complete performance, but we can't be satisfied. We can't settle for where we are right now."
Offensive balance after 57 passing yards last week? Check. Quarterback B.J. Daniels was sharp and clearly enjoyed having senior Dontavia Bogan back, as the two hooked up on a 38-yard touchdown off a flea flicker in the third quarter.
Sacks from the defense? Check. After totaling three in the first three games, the Bulls matched a school record with seven sacks, harassing the Owls' Jeff Van Camp all night. And finally, USF got a fumble recovery, becoming the last school in Division I-A to do so.
Solve the kicking woes? Check. It looks like USF found an answer in sophomore Maikon Bonani, who nailed a 46-yarder after senior Eric Schwartz missed his third kick in two weeks.
The Bulls (3-1) were much crisper than in a 24-12 win against Western Kentucky the previous week. Facing an FAU team that gave USF a scare in Fort Lauderdale three years ago, the Bulls were in control, getting a boost from a blocked punt by Quenton Washington returned for a touchdown by Northeast's Armando Sanchez.
"I thought it was really big, gave everybody a little bit of breathing room, where you didn't feel like every play was going to be the difference in the game," Holtz said.
Daniels' numbers weren't overwhelming — 14-for-19 for 155 yards passing with 27 rushing yards — but he played mistake-free football, and had his second-highest completion percentage as a starter. And though last week's top rusher, Demetris Murray, sat out with an ankle injury, senior Mo Plancher ran well, carrying 20 times for 93 yards and two touchdowns.
"We were balanced, and the defense wasn't able to concentrate on one thing," Daniels said. "We executed the offense pretty well, running and throwing, and it definitely gives us confidence going into the Big East."
USF's defense stepped up in areas that it hadn't in the first three games — all four starting defensive linemen had a sack, and safety Jon Lejiste picked up his third of the season as well. Safety Jerrell Young and linebacker Michael Lanaris had interceptions, and the Owls' only points came on a field goal after an 80-yard drive at the end of the first half.
FAU (1-3) outgained the Bulls in the first half, but the defense held the Owls to 11 total yards in the third quarter as the Bulls pulled away. USF allowed just 152 total yards in the first three quarters, not allowing FAU to have any plays longer than 15 yards up to that point, and 208 total.
"We have guys who love to fly around," said linebacker Sam Barrington, who led the team with eight tackles. "Coach (Mark) Snyder (the coordinator) makes the defense fun for us. He puts us in position to make plays, and that's what we do."
The first four games for USF have gone much as expected — a loss at Florida and three largely easy wins against lightweight opponents Stony Brook, Western Kentucky and Florida Atlantic. Starting this week, the Bulls have much more on the line, but they have momentum to help them as well.
"This is what we've all been waiting for," Holtz said. "We broke our schedule down, we said we'd play our first four games … we're going to learn a lot about our football team. We came into three of the four games favored. We did what we were supposed to do and took care of business. This is what excites me. This is what I'm really looking forward to."
Greg Auman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and at (813) 226-3346. Check out his blog at tampabay.com/blogs/bulls and follow him at Twitter.com/gregauman.