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USF more than prepared to pounce on miscues

Journal: The Bulls force a single-game record eight turnovers against South Carolina State.
USF rejoices after defensive end Kirk Livingstone, getting hugged, recovers a first-half fumble against South Carolina State.
USF rejoices after defensive end Kirk Livingstone, getting hugged, recovers a first-half fumble against South Carolina State. [ SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times ]
Published Sep. 15, 2019|Updated Sep. 15, 2019

TAMPA — USF’s offense struggled to find a rhythm through its first two games, leading to a continuation of a school-record eight-game losing streak that began last season.

But on Saturday against South Carolina State, the Bulls finally got back in the win column.

The defense helped the Bulls accomplish that, forcing a school-record eight turnovers in the 55-16 victory. USF also set a record for the most fumbles recovered in a single game (five). Six of the Bulls’ seven touchdowns came after South Carolina State turnovers.

“Our defense came out and was very aggressive. That’s why we had a number of turnovers,” coach Charlie Strong said, “and we probably left two or three of them on the field.”

The turnovers were recovered by seven different Bulls. Defensive end Greg Reaves recovered two fumbles, one in the first quarter and another in the second that set up a 20-yard touchdown reception from tight end Mitch Wilcox.

Before Saturday’s game, USF had recorded seven takeaways in a single game three times, two of which came during the 2007 season.

“That was a key thing. It’s much easier to get rolling on offense when you have good field position,” Wilcox said about his team’s extra opportunities on offense. “Shout out to our defense and our kicking game for really doing that.”

Alone at the top

USF tight end Mitch Wilcox celebrates after scoring a touchdown against South Carolina State.
USF tight end Mitch Wilcox celebrates after scoring a touchdown against South Carolina State. [ SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times ]

Wilcox already owned the USF record for career catches (76) and yards (1,047) by a tight end, but in the second quarter Saturday, the Tarpon Springs native secured another spot in the record books with a 20-yard touchdown reception.

Wilcox’s score was his seventh career touchdown, the most by any USF tight end. Prior to his first touchdown grab against the Bulldogs, Wilcox was tied with Sean Price for most scores by a tight end.

Wilcox, who scored his eighth career touchdown late in the third quarter on a 10-yard pass from McCloud, is predicted to be one of the best senior tight end prospects in the 2020 NFL draft.

“It felt great to get back in the end zone,” Wilcox said. “Both in the student section, so it was really cool to see all the fans go crazy.”

Making strides

Prior to Saturday’s game, USF was only able to muster 119 yards on the ground, making the Bulls one of the worst rushing teams in the nation after Week 2.

USF’s move to start Jordan McCloud under center instead of Blake Barnett appeared to be an effort to bring some kind of spark to a stagnant offense. Almost immediately the move paid off; USF capitalized in a big way on McCloud’s mobility.

The Bulls rushed for 218 yards, nearly twice as many yards as they had against Wisconsin and Georgia Tech combined.

Freshman Kelley Joiner led all rushers with 64 yards on 12 carries, including a 51-yard dash on USF’s final drive of the night. McCloud, who played at Plant High, wasn’t far behind, ending the night with 56 yards on the ground and a pair of rushing touchdowns — one for 9 yards in the second quarter and another for 3 yards in the fourth.

USF came into Saturday’s game ranked fourth from the bottom in rushing yards per game in Division I-A football, ahead of only Akron, West Virginia and Texas State.

Odds and ends

USF’s 39-point margin of victory was its largest since a 44-3 romp at UCF in 2015. ... McCloud is the 17th starting quarterback in USF history, and 10th to win his first career start. ... In his first career start, sophomore middle linebacker Andrew Mims had a career-best six tackles and forced a fumble that was recovered in USF’s end zone. ... Transfer cornerback KJ Sails, rapidly evolving into one of the team’s most valuable players, had a 34-yard punt return (setting up a field goal), fumble recovery (setting up a TD) and three pass breakups.

Audible

“We’ve got a lot of football left, and once we reach our full potential, it’s gonna be real scary.” ― McCloud

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