SYRACUSE, N.Y. — USF has struggled to win on the road in the Big East, but the Bulls never have had a problem winning in the Carrier Dome.
The Bulls' road record against the rest of the league is 3-9 in five seasons, but after a sloppy 34-20 win Saturday in the Big East opener for both teams, USF improved to 3-0 at the home of the Orange.
"This was the toughest we've ever had here," coach Jim Leavitt said after his team forced seven turnovers in getting its first league road win in 22 months. "I've been here a number of times before, but that was tough. I thought they did an outstanding job."
The Bulls are 5-0 for the third year in a row, and now have 12 days to prepare for a huge home game Oct. 15 against No. 10 Cincinnati. To win against the Bearcats, they'll have to be sharper than they were in Saturday's victory.
USF led just 14-13 at halftime, then pulled away with three touchdowns in the third quarter, including an 85-yard pass from B.J. Daniels to Carlton Mitchell on the first play of the second half. Defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul helped force an interception to set up the next touchdown, then picked one off himself and returned it 18 yards for a score.
USF got to Syracuse quarterback Greg Paulus, the former Duke basketball guard, who had totaled four interceptions in his first four games. He threw five against the Bulls, leading to three USF touchdowns.
"We won the game, and that's what counts," said defensive coordinator Joe Tresey, unhappy to see Syracuse (2-3) go 9-for-15 on third down against what had been Division I-A's top third-down defense. "We were not good on third down today. That was our nemesis. We couldn't get off the field on third down."
Syracuse got a huge game from receiver Mike Williams, who had 13 catches for 186 yards and two touchdowns, despite facing double coverage much of the game. USF got two touchdowns from Mitchell, who caught scores of 33 and 85 yards as part of a career-best 139 yards.
"I'm really proud of our kids coming out in the second half, on the first two drives, to come out and score like we did," offensive coordinator Mike Canales said.
After Mitchell's score put the Bulls up eight, Syracuse drove to the USF 21. Then Pierre-Paul hit Paulus' hand as he threw, and the ensuing pop fly fell to freshman cornerback Kavyon Webster, who returned it to midfield. Facing fourth and 1 at the Syracuse 5, the Bulls went for it and got a tough touchdown from junior Mike Ford, who went for 68 yards and two scores in arguably his best game since 2007.
"Jim (Leavitt) said, 'Let's go get it,' and I said, 'Hell, yeah, let's go get it,' " offensive coordinator Mike Canales said.
It was ugly from the start — the teams combined for five turnovers in the first four minutes, with USF fumbling on its first two offensive plays. USF led 14-6 late in the second half, but running back Mo Plancher lost a fumble which Syracuse recovered at the USF 14. That set up Williams' first touchdown, caught between two Bulls defenders.
Syracuse took itself out of the game with three turnovers in a span of seven plays in the third quarter.
USF is 5-0 for the third straight year and hopes to avoid the midseason slumps after the last two promising starts.
"In order to win the Big East, you've got to be focused every game," said safety Nate Allen, who had two interceptions and a team-high eight tackles. "We've started off strong, but in the middle of the season when we start playing Big East teams we just slumped. Three-game slumps, four-game slumps. To be great, you can't do that."
Greg Auman can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3346. Check out his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/usf and follow him at Twitter.com/gregauman.