TAMPA ― After 3 1/2 decades of death penalties and dormancy, the Pony Express of SMU gallops again.
Meantime, in a totally opposite direction, USF’s hopes of a 2019 resurgence are riding off into a grim sunset.
Could a cliff be nearby?
The Bulls’ losing streak against Division I-A competition stretched to nine games Saturday with another home-field humiliation, this one a 48-21 loss to the Mustangs (5-0, 1-0) in both teams’ American Athletic Conference opener before a generously announced Raymond James Stadium audience of 28,850.
“You can’t get the loser’s limp,” said third-year coach Charlie Strong, growing more beleaguered by the Saturday. “We can correct what is happening to us.”
Or can they?
USF, which spotted SMU a 41-0 lead Saturday, has been outscored 111-31 by Division I-A opposition this year. Up next for USF (1-3, 0-1): a night game next weekend at Connecticut, the last I-A foe to fall to the Bulls ― on Oct. 20, 2018.
After Saturday’s debacle, which followed a bye week for Strong’s team, even the mostly hapless Huskies aren’t a sure thing. Not by any means.
“We’ve got to look to senior leaders, look to our playmakers, and we’ve just got to grind this out,” senior tight end Mitch Wilcox said. “It’s not the start we want, it’s not how this game went, how we want it to. But we’ve got the guys in the locker room and guys on the coaching staff to do it.”
In what has become a recurring theme for this program, USF appeared ill-prepared defensively, while new offensive coordinator Kerwin Bell’s system struggled to find a rhythm behind a shaky offensive line and green quarterback.
USF allowed 10 sacks, tying the program’s 16-year-old single-game record. Even worse, the Bulls were whistled for six personal-foul penalties.
“Yeah, it’s a lack of discipline," free safety Nick Roberts said. "I’d say we could be better. Some of 'em we couldn’t help, but it’s what it is.”
After an encouraging starting debut two weeks ago against Division I-AA South Carolina State, redshirt freshman Jordan McCloud tossed interceptions on two of USF’s first three possessions and was sacked six times in the first half.
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He was replaced in the second half (Strong said McCloud injured his wrist) by former starter Blake Barnett, who was mostly efficient (13-for-21, 222 yards, three touchdowns) long after the outcome had been decided.
Strong said Barnett dinged up his ankle late in the game, leaving open the question of who starts at UConn.
“What we’ve got to do is make a decision on a guy who we want to go with, and just go with him," he said.
McCloud finished 8-for-19 for 66 yards and a 50.2 rating. USF’s most promising drive of the first half, a 16-play march deep into SMU’s red zone, ended when McCloud’s pass toward Wilcox (in man coverage) in the corner of the end zone was intercepted.
Meantime, Mustangs quarterback Shane Buechele, whose team is 5-0 for the first time since 1983, completed his first 13 passes and finished 21-for-25 for 226 yards and three TDs in only three quarters.
He also flourished with the deep ball, the one element of the Mustangs’ Air Raid offense that Strong said the Bulls must stop. SMU finished with 497 yards, churned out 245 on the ground (leading rusher Xavier Jones had 155 on 15 carries) and scored TDs on five consecutive first-half possessions.
Amid that onslaught was a microcosm of the USF defensive discombobulation.
Early in the second period, USF called a timeout to set up for SMU’s fourth-and-2 play from the Bulls 6. After the timeout, Buechele rolled right and lofted a short TD throw to wide-open possession receiver James Proche, sprung free on a simple rub route.
A rout ― only the latest in a disturbing sequence of them ― followed the route.
“The penalties, we can correct the penalties. You can correct all the things that are happening to us,” Strong said.
“So there’s no need in us getting down on ourselves, or all of the sudden looking like, ‘Hey, there’s no light at the end of the tunnel.’ There’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Contact Joey Knight at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.