EAST HARTFORD, Conn. ― On a bright New England afternoon bereft of humidity, USF’s Charlie Strong experienced his own temporary reprieve from the heat.
After a month of mediocrity, the Bulls (2-3, 1-1) snapped a nine-game losing streak against Division I-A opposition with a mostly glistening 48-22 victory against American Athletic Conference lame duck Connecticut (1-4, 0-2) before an announced Pratt & Whitney Stadium audience of 18,038.
As a result, the Bulls enter Homecoming week, and a critical non-conference matchup against BYU, with momentum instead of myriad questions about their coach’s future.
“It just takes a win to really get you going,” said Strong, whose status had become the source of national speculation during a I-A skid that began after a home win against this same Huskies program last Oct. 20.
“I was so happy for our team ... because I’ve been telling them each and every week, ‘We’re better than what we’re showing right now, and we have to get much better, and we have to go out and play.’”
Playing without leading receiver Johnny Ford (suspension) and one-time starting quarterback Blake Barnett (ankle), the Bulls brandished an offensive crispness (season-best 503 yards) barely seen in September, albeit against the AAC’s 11th-ranked defense.
“It was a joy,” outside linebacker Antonio “Yo-Yo” Grier said. “Instead of going punt team, punt team, punt team, it was touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, or field goal.”
Establishing a ground game mostly incognito through the first month, USF amassed 313 rushing yards. It also scored touchdowns on four consecutive first-half possessions, four more than it totaled in the first half against three previous I-A opponents this season.
“I think what happened in the past games, we gave up on (the run) too easy," said Strong, whose team entered the weekend ranked last in the AAC in rushing offense (97.8 ypg).
"When you’re running the football you have to be patient. And it may be a 2-yarder, it may be a 3-yarder, then you’re gonna bust one. But you have to have confidence in the offensive line and let them guys just come off the ball, which they did today and they moved people.”
Three of those four first-half TDs featured redshirt freshman quarterback Jordan McCloud in some form, with his most critical sequence occurring in the first half’s waning moments.
After a quick UConn touchdown drive cut the Huskies’ deficit to 20-14 with 2:45 to play in the half, McCloud took a second-and-15 snap near midfield and ― eluding a blitzer up the middle ― scrambled for a 21-yard gain.
The very next play, UConn blitzed up the middle again, and McCloud again scrambled away, this time for a 26-yard TD.
“That was big,” Strong said.
Pulled in the first half of last weekend’s 48-21 home loss to SMU, McCloud finished with 219 total yards and four total TDs. He completed 11 of 21 passes for 157 yards and three TDs, but two ill-advised throws into coverage were picked.
Meantime, senior Jordan Cronkrite finally got untracked, running for a season-best 140 yards on 19 carries. Walk-on slot receiver Bryce Miller, starting in Ford’s place, had a pair of scoring receptions.
“Shout out to the offensive line, they did a tremendous job," Cronkrite said. "They did a great job moving people. We weren’t doing that in previous games, but today it showed.”
Defensively, some chronic issues continued to surface. UConn quarterback Mike Beaudry exploited Bulls blitzes with short screens for big gains, and tailback Kevin Mensah (21 carries, 70 yards, two TDs) gashed USF up the middle on occasion.
But the Bulls stood mostly firm on third down ― where the Huskies went 2-for-13 ― and held UConn scoreless on a first-and-goal situation inside the USF 20 in the second half. Linebacker Dwayne Boyles had three of the Bulls’ 10 tackles for loss.
Even the special teams sparkled, with long-range place-kicker Spencer Shrader ― a Newsome High alumnus ― scurrying for a 22-yard TD on a fourth-quarter fake.
“We had not played up to our ability up to this point," Strong said. "We played four games, we were sitting there at 1-3, but I knew we were a much better team than what we were showing.”
Contact Joey Knight at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.