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Bulls consistently come up short

At the heart of USF's offensive struggles in Saturday's 34-3 loss to South Carolina was a consistent ineptitude on third downs. The Bulls converted just 2-of-13 and more than half the failed attempts came on plays in which USF needed 5 yards or less for a first down.

"We need to have a higher percentage," said coach Jim Leavitt, whose team went 7-for-14 in its season opener against Tennessee Tech. "We completed some short passes, but we didn't get the yards we needed for the first downs."

USF connected for its two biggest plays on third down, with quarterback Ronnie Banks linking with running back Andre Hall and receiver Jackie Chambersfor gains of 23 and 29 yards. Those were the only conversions on a night in which the Bulls struggled mightily to move the chains.

Twice, USF was unable to convert on third and 1, with Banks firing an incomplete pass intended for receiver Bruce Gipson and running back Clenton Crossley being stopped for no gain. The second miss was redeemed when Hall converted fourth and 1 with a 7-yard run in the third quarter. The Bulls failed on their final seven third downs.

For all their third-down futility, the Bulls rarely faced third-and-long situations. Until the fourth quarter, when the game was long since decided, USF needed more than 7 yards for a first down just once. Five times, the Bulls went three and out, and their defense forced South Carolina to do the same once in 12 possessions. The two third-down conversions are the third-lowest total in USF history; the only games with fewer came early in 1999, when the Bulls were a Division I-AA team.

NO NEED TO RUSH: After harassing Tennessee Tech for five sacks in the season-opening 21-7 win, USF did not register a sack against South Carolina. The Bulls had at least one sack in every game last season, though two sacks were wiped out by penalties Saturday.

The first came on a 13-yard sack by Tavarious Robinson, which would have been his second this season had he not been flagged for an incidental 5-yard face-mask penalty on the tackle. USF also got to quarterback Syvelle Newton when he was flagged for intentional grounding, and while it isn't credited as a sack, it was a 13-yard loss for USC.

NEW RANKING: USF had the nation's stingiest total defense after allowing 145 yards in its first game. After giving up 530 against South Carolina, the Bulls now are 50th in total defense and 53rd in scoring defense. Saturday's opponent, TCU, having given up 70 points in losing to Texas Tech, is ranked 104th in scoring defense.

USF ranks 115th out of 117 schools in total offense, averaging 234.5 yards. The Bulls rank 108th in scoring offense; TCU is 11th.

THIS AND THAT: Curtis Chance, a freshman defensive tackle from Dixie Hollins, made his USF debut, as did fellow linemen Allen Cray and Antonio Searcy. Tight end Will Bleakley, a sophomore from Crystal River, picked up his first career tackle on special teams. Among the team's true freshmen, receiver Jackie Chambers led the Bulls with 33 receiving yards and safety Danny Verpaele saw action in the secondary, making three tackles. Dade City's Johnny Peyton still has not caught a pass, though the Bulls tried deep passes to him twice. Running back Ricky Ponton of Hillsborough and receiver Marcus Edwards, once among the leading candidates to play this fall, did not travel with the team.

_ GREG AUMAN, Times staff writer