TAMPA ― Despite an offseason of bulking up and bench pressing, protein shakes and personal-bests on the squat rack, USF still bore a striking resemblance to its feeble 2018 predecessor Friday night.
In fact, many Bulls fans may be waxing nostalgic for the good ol’ days of ’18 right about now.
Many of the shortcomings of the previous autumn ― tackling, susceptibility to a sturdy run game and a discombobulated offense ― reared themselves against No. 19 Wisconsin before an ESPN audience.
Following a lightning delay of nearly an hour, Badgers resident Heisman candidate Jonathan Taylor began striking, and often. The Bulls failed to neutralize him ― or get their offense out of neutral ― in a 49-0 Badgers romp before an announced crowd of 46,704 at Raymond James Stadium.
“Very disappointing, very embarrassing loss,” embattled third-year coach Charlie Strong said. “As a head coach, I thought I had them ready to play and I guess I didn’t, and we showed it.”
The loss was historic on two fronts. It was USF’s seventh in a row, equaling the program record established at the end of 2012 and the outset of ’13.
It also was the most lopsided in the Bulls’ 22-plus seasons, eclipsing the 42-3 loss at Arkansas in 2002.
“This is not USF football,” said senior offensive lineman Billy Atterbury, who made his 28th career start but struggled in his collegiate debut at left tackle.
“This is not the way we want to be, this is not the way I’m gonna go out as a senior. I think that we have the fight in us, and I think next week (at Georgia Tech) is a big challenge. ... We just have to push hard and prove this isn’t us.”
While the Bulls foundered, Taylor’s campaign for college football’s most coveted award got off to a dazzling start. The 219-pound junior ran for 135 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries ― and also recorded the first two receiving TDs of his college career ― before calling it a night early in the second half.
On the game’s eighth play from scrimmage, the reigning Doak Walker Award winner took a Jack Coan handoff, dashed through a seam on his left side, broke an arm tackle and raced 37 yards for a touchdown.
By the end of the first quarter, Taylor had more rushing yards (70) than USF had totaled (31).
The Badgers were just getting started.
Wisconsin took a two-touchdown lead with 12:58 to play in the first half when senior outside linebacker Zack Baun got past Atterbury for a blindside hit on quarterback Blake Barnett, just as he was throwing.
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The hit popped the ball loose, and defensive end Matt Henningsen snagged it in mid-air and rambled 16 yards to the end zone.
“That’s absolutely on me,” Atterbury said.
The play served as a grim microcosm of Kerwin Bell’s debacle of a debut as Bulls offensive coordinator.
With heralded starting slot receiver Johnny Ford sidelined for what was believed to be a non-injury issue, USF (157 total yards) developed no offensive rhythm or run game (26 yards), and didn’t cross midfield until the fourth quarter.
“You have to be balanced, and we were not balanced in our attack,” Strong said. “We were never able to establish the run, so when you don’t establish the run, you allow guys to tee off on you.”
Barnett (13-for-30, 109 yards, two interceptions) struggled to get in sync with his receivers and was so harassed (three sacks), Bell appeared to call design rollouts to protect him.
“I felt like I was more prepared for this game than any single game last year," Barnett said.
"I was seeing the field well, making my checks, understanding coverages. I felt extremely comfortable, and it was just little things. It was one piece of the puzzle wasn’t put in the right place.”
While the Bulls sputtered, Taylor and Co. sparkled.
“If you look at that game and you watch, up front is where they won the game,” Strong said.
Two minutes after Henningsen’s big-man TD, Taylor took a check-down throw from Coan and raced for a 36-yard touchdown, pushing the UW lead to 21-0.
On the half’s final play, he took a short Coan pass at the USF 5, broke two tackles and lunged his body across the goal line for another TD. His 38-yard TD, on a run right up middle, gave the Badgers a 35-0 lead two minutes into the second half.
By that point, most of USF’s student section ― the school was close to distributing all 10,000 of its allotted students by kickoff ― had cleared out.
Whether it returns is anyone’s guess.
“I don’t think it had anything to do with the new offense, just a lack of execution,” Barnett said. “But this team is unbelievably better than we were tonight, and it’s up to us to prove that.”
Contact Joey Knight at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.