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USF Bulls on the wrong end of this stampede

Martin Fennelly: It was just another dreary Saturday for Charlie Strong and USF against SMU.
USF coach Charlie Strong walks back to the locker room after the loss to SMU.
USF coach Charlie Strong walks back to the locker room after the loss to SMU. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]
Published Sep. 29, 2019
Updated Sep. 29, 2019

TAMPA — It was just USF coach Charlie Strong’s luck. He and his Bulls get SMU in a season in which the former American Athletic Conference mutt suddenly is acting like the Pony Express is back with Dickerson and James. USF gets pre-death penalty SMU, the bad old days when the schedule was filled with wins and the brown bags were stuffed with cash.

For a good-measure punch in the gut, Strong’s defense gets its teeth kicked in by SMU graduate transfer Shane Buechele, who Strong once recruited to play for him at Texas.

It added up to a dreadful 48-21 USF home loss. It was not do-or-die for Strong and this now 1-3 USF season. No, that would be next week at UConn. Lose there and the list of coaching names in USF athletic director Michael Kelly’s pocket is seamlessly transferred to a front pocket. Strong has won one of his past 10 games. Average margin of defeat: 21.6 points.

“We will get it correct,” he said, “because we are better than that.”

They are?

In many ways, Saturday was less excusable than that hideous 49-0 opening loss to Wisconsin, when USF didn’t belong on the same field. But the Bulls should have belonged on the same field with SMU, at least for a half. Instead, they trailed 34-0. Forget that SMU, which will now probably be ranked, hadn’t been 5-0 since 1983, at about the time NCAA whistleblowers showed up in Dallas.

There is death penalty and then there is slow death, USF style. That its body isn’t cold yet probably owes to the game-time temperature of 91 degrees, braved by an appallingly small crowd of 28,850. You know, if I was a USF fan, I’d go to games just so I could leave in protest. It would be worth the trip.

Last year, same stadium, I remember watching USF losing big to Tulane to truly kick off the death drop that left the Bulls 7-6. They quit in that game. In a way, this was worse. They weren’t good enough. They couldn’t execute. Their touchdowns came only after SMU took a 41-0 lead. Nor were they disciplined enough, evidenced by a ghastly six personal fouls.

And there’s a quarterback dilemma again.

Tampa redshirt freshman Jordan McCloud, who starred at Plant as a senior, who made five touchdowns against the Football Championship Subdivision’s South Carolina State in his first college start, looked alarmingly human Saturday, throwing two glaring interceptions, one in SMU’s end zone and both leading to touchdowns the other direction. McCloud also left because of a wrist injury.

Enter senior Blake Barnett, who rallied the Bulls to three garbage-time scores. By the way, Barnett also was shaken up late in the game. Lovely.

As if it matters. What’s that line? When you have two quarterbacks you really don’t have any.

There are already legitimate questions about offensive coordinator Kerwin Bell, Florida folk hero or not. The Bulls could not make Bell’s offense work for three quarters. Or Bell couldn’t make it work. Maybe his system is too complex. Or maybe it simply is a clunker. USF has players at skill positions. You just wouldn’t know it.

And there is USF’s defense. SMU had been averaging 43.5 points per game. The Mustangs beat that Saturday. They came in averaging 213 rushing yards per game. They topped that with 245. USF can’t stop anyone all over again.

“We can’t fall behind 34-0. We’re not good enough to get caught back up. No one is good enough to get caught back up,” Strong said.

Quick review: USF scored 55 points against South Carolina State. They have a combined 31 points in losses to Wisconsin, Georgia Tech and SMU.

It had to sting that Buechele, the former Longhorn, gored his old coach’s program, completing 21 of 26 passes for 226 yards and three touchdowns.

“Look at some of the throws he made,” Strong said. “I don’t think a lot of guys can make those throws. But he did that at the last place I was at.”

Isn’t that always the way?

Last season, when USF was 7-0, we wondered who could beat them. Turns out everyone could. Now we wonder who they can beat. After Saturday, you have to look really hard to find a four- or five-win season. UConn probably. Maybe at East Carolina. Everything else is up for grabs. SMU grabbed it Saturday and left USF grasping at straws.

“We can cure what happened to us,” Strong said. “There’s light at the end of the tunnel. We’ve just got to work.”

Then again, it could be a train.

Contact Martin Fennelly at mfennelly@tampabay.com or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly