ATLANTA — Let it be known that in the birthplace of Coca-Cola, USF brandished the program’s first sign of fizz in nearly 11 months.
Not that it made this latest loss go down any easier.
A disheveled mess against Georgia Tech for three quarters, USF’s offense registered its first pulse of 2019 behind backup quarterback Jordan McCloud. But the potential rally, and USF’s first win since last October, was foiled by a late turnover at the Georgia Tech 1.
That fourth-quarter fumble, by senior tailback Jordan Cronkrite, essentially preserved a 14-10 Yellow Jackets win before an announced crowd of 46,599 at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
USF (0-2) now has dropped a program-record eight consecutive games.
“I tell our guys that any time you go on the road, you don’t ever leave the game in the hands of the officials,” coach Charlie Strong said of the review upholding an onfield ruling that Cronkrite lost the ball while trying to stretch it over the plane of the goal line. “A team that’s so close, and you just get so frustrated and disappointed because it’s right there in our hands and it’s just slipping away from us.”
More frustration loomed.
USF appeared poised for a final offensive possession when transfer linebacker Patrick Macon stopped quarterback Tobias Oliver for a 2-yard loss on third and 12 with 2:05 to play and the Bulls bereft of timeouts.
But Macon was penalized for targeting after another officials review, essentially ending the game.
“I don’t even think he hit the guy,” Strong said.
The dismal conclusion extinguished the spark provided by McCloud (4-for-5, 90 yards), a redshirt freshman from Plant High inserted on the final series of the third quarter.
At that point, USF trailed 14-3. One play before McCloud entered, transfer cornerback KJ Sails intercepted a pass — tipped by Macon — deep in Tech territory.
Three plays later, on the fourth quarter’s opening play, McCloud — who had replaced senior Blake Barnett — found Johnny Ford over the middle for a 20-yard scoring strike on third and 5.
“It’s great the way he stepped up,” senior safety Devin Studstill said.
“We’re all proud to see a new guy step up. Any new face, any new person bringing a team along, anyone that brings a team along forward, we’re down for ’em.”
USF forced another turnover on the ensuing Tech possession, with safety Nick Roberts forcing a fumble by tight end Dylan Deveney that rush end Darius Slade recovered.
The next play, McCloud connected on a fade route to tight end Mitch Wilcox, who rambled to the Georgia Tech 1 for a 54-yard gain.
“We knew that we got man coverage, and before the snap I knew that I was gonna get it,” McCloud said. “I just had to wait on the corner and see what he did. He went inside and it was open.”
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Four plays later, Cronkrite’s effort fumble occurred.
“We thought he was in,” Strong said, “but the officials reviewed it and said he wasn’t over.”
Preceding the fourth-quarter drama was three quarters of offensive drek.
When not rolling out for his life, Barnett (12-for-20, 79 yards) again appeared disoriented, his throws lacking crispness. For the second game in a row, his protection and running game never materialized; USF managed 93 rushing yards, with Barnett scrambling for 43 of those.
Meantime, the refurbished Bulls defense did its part, holding Tech to 255 total yards despite consistently being put in unfavorable situations.
For a time, its most potent enemy was itself. Georgia Tech’s first touchdown drive, starting on the USF 43, was buoyed by consecutive USF personal-foul penalties.
“We’re cooking with gasoline here,” said Studstill, a Notre Dame transfer who led USF with seven solo tackles. “It’s coming together, it’s coming along, I promise you.”
As for the offense, changes are almost certain to be forthcoming in light of Saturday’s late proceedings. While Strong didn’t say McCloud would start next week against Division I-AA South Carolina State, he said his staff would “re-evaluate” the position.”
“It sucks the way it ended,” McCloud said. “But we’ve got 10 more opportunities to just prove who we are.”
Contact Joey Knight at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.