TAMPA ― At times Saturday evening, the first start of quarterback Jordan McCloud’s collegiate career provided USF fans the dazzle for which they’d hoped.
But far more importantly, it provided the win for which they've ached.
In a debut that was equal parts spotty and proficient, the 19-year-old Plant High alumnus provided glimpses of promise against Division I-AA South Carolina State and watched his defense force a program-record eight turnovers in a 55-16 rout at Raymond James Stadium.
“It was a blessing,” said McCloud, notified roughly two hours before kickoff that he’d be starting. “A lot of my family was here tonight. It was just such a blessing to play in front of all them and perform at a high level.”
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The victory ended USF’s school-record eight-game losing skid dating to last October. The Bulls (1-2) now get a bye week before opening American Athletic Conference play.
“We just needed a win," Bulls coach Charlie Strong said.
"You didn’t want it to be close because still you would’ve felt like, ‘Hey, we didn’t play well.’ And then with us playing as well as we played, it’s something to build on.”
McCloud finished 16-for-27 for 217 yards and totaled five touchdowns (three passing, two rushing) in slightly more than three quarters. He struggled with his accuracy at times, and encountered the same issues ― namely protection and meager production from his tailbacks ― that plagued predecessor Blake Barnett.
On its seven drives that began in Bulldogs territory, USF came away with no more than a field goal three times. But before an announced crowd of 31,368, McCloud and his defense compensated for those blemishes, eventually.
The Bulls netted minus-12 yards on their first two possessions before finding their stride. McCloud’s designed keeper on third-and-1 near midfield netted 13 yards. Two plays later, he found slot receiver Johnny Ford isolated behind the secondary for a 42-yard touchdown strike and 7-3 lead.
What ensued were varying stretches of futility and flash, though USF scored on seven of eight trips inside the red zone.
McCloud gained 31 yards on a designed keeper to the SCSU 4, but the Bulls couldn’t punch it in, settling for a 20-yard Coby Weiss field goal. Another USF drive starting at midfield resulted in a three-and-out.
But after Tampa Catholic alumnus Bentlee Sanders forced a fumble on a sack of quarterback Tyrece Nick at the Bulldogs 23, McCloud responded with a 20-yard scoring toss to tight end Mitch Wilcox.
“He showed a lot of poise tonight,” said Wilcox, who had a pair of TD receptions. "And that was really good to see coming in and really playing well.”
Arguably the most impressive possession of 2019 followed Wilcox’s scoring catch.
After Notre Dame transfer Devin Studstill recovered a fumble in his own end zone, McCloud drove the Bulls 80 yards on 11 plays, the last of which was his 9-yard scoring scramble for a 24-3 halftime lead.
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McCloud was 6-for-8 for 81 yards on the drive, completing passes to five different receivers.
“He sits in there and...doesn’t get fazed by a lot,” Strong said.
“Even with them bringing pressure, he’ll sit in there and if it breaks down, then he’s gonna scramble out and take off with the ball. He has just that quiet confidence about himself.”
Helping buoy McCloud was an opportunistic defense that occasionally bent, but forced four of its turnovers inside its own red zone in the process.
The most sparkling: a 62-yard interception return by free safety Nick Roberts on the second half’s opening drive, setting up Ford’s 32-yard scoring run the next play that gave the hosts a 31-3 lead.
Ford, one of eight receivers to catch a pass from McCloud, finished with 100 yards on four catches, adding 37 yards and a TD on the ground. And while it still sputtered, the run game netted 218 yards, 99 more than it totaled in losses to Wisconsin and Georgia Tech.
“Like coach said, enough is enough, so we came out with the mentality that we were gonna play faster, because that’s what our offense is," Ford said. "So we played faster. Now, we’re just getting it, so it’s starting to roll. It’s starting to click.”
Contact Joey Knight at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.