TAMPA ― During brief pauses in action Saturday, USF announced that a pair of donors had pledged another $2.5 million to its proposed football center.
When it resumed, something arguably more priceless unfolded: a Bulls comeback that could alter the trajectory of this once-wayward season.
Behind its resurgent ground game, USF (3-3) rallied from a 13-point hole for a 27-23 homecoming triumph against BYU (2-4) before an announced Raymond James Stadium crowd of 35,375.
The Bulls suddenly have cobbled together a two-game win streak after a horrific start, elevating their bowl aspirations from laughable to conceivable.
“It wasn’t always the prettiest, it wasn’t the cleanest, but we got it done,” said senior tight end Mitch Wilcox, who helped epitomize this unkempt triumph with a touchdown catch on a pass not intended for him.
"I think winning is a habit, and I think we’re getting back into winning habits in many areas.”
Senior Jordan Cronkrite, virtually nonexistent through the season’s first four games, notched his second consecutive 100-yard effort (26 carries, 158 yards, two touchdowns), scoring the go-ahead TD on a 3-yard run with 7:37 to play.
BYU had two more chances inside the red zone, but USF’s defense, in a bend-but-don’t break mode all afternoon, came through both times.
On the game’s next-to-last play, third-and-10 from the USF 12, sophomore linebacker Antonio Grier blitzed and sacked Cougars backup quarterback Baylor Romney (no relation to Mitt), whose final throw was batted by safety Devin Studstill.
The sack was USF’s sixth of the day, most for the program in a single game since 2012.
“I cried," senior defensive end Greg Reaves said. "I just put so much into this, every day. ... It’s just nice to see the result come to fruition.”
But drab ― the kind to which Bulls fans had grown accustomed in September ― preceded the drama.
With quarterback Jordan McCloud still nursing a sore throwing wrist, then getting his shoulder banged up in the first quarter, the Bulls amassed 25 yards on their first four possessions, collecting more fumbles (one) than first downs in that span.
But their fifth possession changed the game’s complexion.
Stay updated on Tampa Bay’s sports scene
Subscribe to our free Sports Today newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
It ended with McCloud getting off a wobbly throw as he was nailed from his blind side. Wilcox ran under it and snagged it just as he entered the end zone for a 39-yard touchdown, cutting USF’s deficit to 13-7.
The score capped an eight-play, 86-yard march during an otherwise dominant opening half for the Cougars.
Behind redshirt freshman Jaren Hall, who became the first African-American quarterback to start a game for BYU, the Cougars controlled the ball for 21:37 of the first half. Three of their four opening-half scoring drives stretched at least 11 plays, but USF held them to field goals on all three of those drives.
“Just defensively, we needed that,” Bulls coach Charlie Strong said. "And we gave up some plays, but we didn’t give up touchdowns, and that was critical.”
So was the run game, which compiled 178 of its 243 yards after halftime.
“I had gotten banged up in the second or third drive when I was running up the middle," said McCloud, who finished 7-for-14 for 72 yards and struggled mightily with his accuracy. "I talked to coach, ‘We can pass it, let’s just try to get the running game going to help me out a little bit.’”
Cronkrite’s 1-yard scoring surge up the middle capped a 14-play drive to open the second half that cut the Cougars’ lead to 16-14. Fifty-four of the Bulls’ 68 yards on the drive came on the ground.
Hall answered on the ensuing five-play drive with scrambles of 32 and 29 yards, the latter of which gave the Cougars a 23-14 lead. But a BYU fumble on a punt attempt was recovered by Vincent Davis at the Cougars 23.
Four plays later, McCloud faked a toss to tailback Kelley Joiner and trotted 2 yards into the end zone for a TD. After a Cougars missed field goal, USF drove 78 yards on nine run plays, ending with Cronkrite’s game-winner.
The Bulls held on from there, injecting life to a season previously on life support.
“When you’re 1-3, which we were, the season’s not over," Strong said. “Everybody’s acting like they’re gonna jump off a mountain, but the season’s not over. You just keep playing. There’s still a lot of football left.”
Contact Joey Knight at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.