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Four reasons USF can rebound at Georgia Tech

Conventional thought says the Bulls won’t lay another egg in Atlanta.
Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor (23) runs the ball during the third quarter against USF on Friday, Aug. 30, 2019 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. [ALLIE GOULDING | Times] [ALLIE GOULDING  |  Times]
Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor (23) runs the ball during the third quarter against USF on Friday, Aug. 30, 2019 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. [ALLIE GOULDING | Times] [ALLIE GOULDING | Times]
Published Sep. 4, 2019
Updated Sep. 5, 2019

TAMPA — We’re not about to try to explain away an inexplicable performance. USF’s dreadful exhibition in its 49-0 loss to Wisconsin in its season opener Friday transcends a bad throw here or a botched assignment there.

We’re talking a seven-touchdown differential.

“We knew we had to play exceptional to go beat this team,” Bulls coach Charlie Strong said.

Instead of a perfect effort by the Bulls against the nationally ranked Badgers, the nation saw a putrid one ESPN. Still, the stench shouldn’t linger. The debacle represented an imperfect storm of sorts: a convergence of bad execution, bad matchup and bad luck.

Here are four reasons to see the Bulls rebounding — perhaps in a big way — Saturday at Georgia Tech.

1. Johnny Ford returns

USF slot receiver Johnny Ford (20) stands on the sidelines during the game against Wisconsin on Friday, Aug. 30, 2019 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. [ALLIE GOULDING | Times] [ALLIE GOULDING | Times]

Though USF still hasn’t said why the 5-foot-5 slot receiver was sidelined for the Wisconsin game, Strong has said Ford will return Saturday.

Believed to be the key component in new coordinator Kerwin Bell’s offense (one in which diminutive, dynamic playmakers historically have flourished), Ford’s absence limited the options in Bell’s playbook.

“Johnny missing the game was big for us,” Bell said Wednesday. “We had a lot of stuff on him to handle some of (Wisconsin’s) man coverages. He’s a great man-beater for us, and with him being out, it really put a lot of extra emphasis on other guys.”

Would the sophomore have made a 49-point difference? No. But imagine the early momentum USF might have seized with Ford bursting for big yardage on a jet sweep or a swing pass.

2. The receivers might catch on this time

USF wide receiver Jernard Phillips (15) mishandles a throw from quarterback Blake Barnett (11) during the first quarter against Wisconsin on Friday, Aug. 30, 2019 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. [ALLIE GOULDING | Times] [ALLIE GOULDING | Times]

After watching Wisconsin drive for a touchdown in eight plays in Friday’s opening drive, USF appeared poised to respond. Blake Barnett’s first throw, an out route to Randall St. Felix, went for 8 yards. Two plays later, Jordan Cronkrite churned forward for a 2-yard gain and a first down.

Then, Jernard Phillips dropped a Barnett pass near his sideline that would’ve picked up 20 yards. Barnett’s next throw, a 35-yard strike to Eddie McDoom, also was dropped.

“Those two drops were big,” Bell said. “You’re probably at midfield or beyond in the first two drives, now you gain momentum. That one explosive play on both of those would help you finish a drive and score some points.”

Soon thereafter, Barnett was rolling out for his life.

“Once (Wisconsin) settled in man (coverage), they just said, ‘Hey, we’re playing some man coverage. Let’s see if you can beat us,’ ” Bell said. “They got the lead, and then it got even tougher. Every series we went back out there, it got tougher and tougher.”

3. Georgia Tech is no Wisconsin

Given the Bulls’ chronic struggles against the run in 2018 and that they were unveiling a new offense (we’re still awaiting that unveiling), USF would’ve been far better suited opening against a Wofford or Western Carolina.

“We had done some things early in preseason camp,” Bell said, “but we hadn’t gone against the kind of team we were going against defensively.”

Fortunately for the Bulls, Georgia Tech is in major transition under new coach Geoff Collins.

The Yellow Jackets (0-1), changing from former coach Paul Johnson’s patented flexbone option, used three quarterbacks in a 52-14 loss at Clemson a week ago today. They surrendered 411 rushing yards to the Tigers, though their pass coverage was sound.

RELATED: Five things to know about Georgia Tech

4. Things can’t get worse, right?

One sports adage is that teams often make their greatest improvement from Game 1 to Game 2. The coaches now have tape against a live, quality opponent to assess, which can be far more beneficial than breaking down practice tape. Coaches also likely have a better idea of which personnel gives them the best chance for success going forward.

“I will say that I still have confidence and I believe in this football team,” Strong said. “And I know we’re going to go take care of our business.”

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