TAMPA — The scoreboard showed a relatively easy opening win for USF, but Saturday's 34-13 win over Chattanooga was an uncertain start for an ambitious Bulls team that saw a familiar sight — the good and the bad of senior quarterback B.J. Daniels.
USF's defense was strong, holding the Mocs to 151 yards, and the special teams were sharp all over, but Skip Holtz didn't have much praise for an offense that was inconsistent against its lightest opponent of the season.
"I didn't think overall offensively it was one of our better efforts," Holtz said. "There seemed to be a lot of confusion, guys running on and off the field. Offensively, we've got to get some things polished up. … We're going to have a much better effort (next week at Nevada) than the one we put out there tonight if we expect to fly across the country and come home with a win."
Daniels completed 15 of his first 18 passes for three touchdowns and scrambled for a 20-yard scoring run for a 21-point lead in the fourth quarter. But two turnovers — a fumble on a sack and an interception late in the first half — led directly to the Mocs' first 10 points, keeping the game closer than most would have liked in front of 30,733, according to the Tampa Sports Authority turnstile count.
"There were a lot of things we can definitely work on," said Daniels, who was 17-for-26 for 225 yards. "I missed a couple of throws that were easy and wide-open. Also, protecting the football is a thing I'm really hoping to work on this week to try to change that for the next game."
Daniels hit speedy receivers — a 19-yard throw to 5-foot-5 Derrick Hopkins for a wide-open 19-yard score, to 164-pound Terrence Mitchell for a 38-yard score, and to top returning receiver Sterling Griffin, for a 39-yard score. Daniels was sharp on downfield throws, but turnovers have been his nemesis in his three seasons as starter.
"We're not where we need to be. We're not consistent enough as a running team," offensive coordinator Todd Fitch said. "Just overall, the jelling of everything. There's some flashes, but we're way far away. … We have a lot of work to do. We're going to play a really good team this week in Reno. It's good we have a win. It's good to get back on the field. I think we have their attention."
Daniels' first mistake was a fumble on a sack that set the Mocs up on the USF 25-yard line, leading to a 39-yard field goal. Then with 1:13 left in the half his throw for tight end Evan Landi was picked off by D.J. Key and returned to the USF 4-yard line, a "critical one" according to Fitch, setting up a touchdown with 30 seconds left.
The interception came right after a strong goal-line showing by USF's defense, which stopped the Mocs despite six plays inside the Bulls' 10.
USF didn't allow a first down — or even net positive yardage — until the second quarter, though Chattanooga got a spark with the insertion of quarterback Jacob Huesman, the son of coach Russ Huesman. At the end of three quarters, the Bulls had held the Mocs to 148 total yards, with a 29-yard catch the only play longer than 17 yards.
USF didn't get to rest Daniels or many other starters until midway through the fourth quarter, when redshirt freshman Matt Floyd took over, going 3-for-7 for 19 yards.