TAMPA — With a 3-yard touchdown run from Jordan Cronkrite, USF took its first lead against BYU with less than eight minutes to play. At that point, all the Bulls had to do was play a little defense.
Fortunately for USF, it had been doing just that all afternoon.
The Cougars were forced to settle for four field-goal attempts Saturday, and the Bulls, who came in ranked No. 3 nationally in tackles for loss, recorded 12 more. Twice in the final two minutes, BYU, trailing by four, found themselves in the red zone. Both times, the Bulls defense stopped the Cougars short, securing a 27-23 victory.
USF coach Charlie Strong noted that his defense could have been better in many ways — BYU converted 12 third downs — but in the biggest areas, it got the job done.
“We gave up some plays, but we didn’t give up touchdowns,” Strong said. “And that was critical.”
Late in the fourth quarter, BYU starting quarterback Jaren Hall took a hard hit and was replaced with Baylor Romney, so USF had to adjust.
On their final two fourth-quarter drives, the Cougars got close. But the Bulls defense stood tall.
“We were just trying to go out and get after him. They got a couple routes down the field … but all I kept saying is, ‘We’re not losing this game. We’re not going into this locker room without a W,’ ” defensive end Greg Reaves said. “And the guys bought into that.”
BYU was in search of its first win in the Sunshine State, having gone 0-7 in Florida prior to the matchup with USF. The Cougars are still winless in Florida, but they made history nonetheless.
Hall became the first African-American to start at quarterback for BYU. Hall, who left the game in the fourth with concussion-like symptoms after a hard hit, got the nod after regular starter Zach Wilson was sidelined due to injury. Hall is also the first redshirt freshman to start for the Cougars since 2002.
Hall, whose father also played for BYU in the 1990s, got off to a rough start against the Bulls. He was sacked four times in the first half, two of which came on back-to-back plays in the first quarter. But as the game progressed, so did Hall.
In the third quarter, with USF down by two, Hall rushed 29 yards for a touchdown to widen the gap. He finished with 83 yards rushing, completing 15 of 23 passes for 148 yards and another score.
“He played very well,” Strong said. “I told our team, ‘In the spring, he was their starting quarterback, so don’t walk out into this game thinking he can only run the football, because he can throw it. He was their starter.’ ”
USF announced $2.5 million in donations to the university’s athletics department, $2 million of which will be put toward the construction of the Football Center. The indoor practice facility, which will also house the program’s operations department, is slated to be built on campus across from the Lee Roy Selmon Athletics Center.
Michael and Darlene Charles made a $1 million donation, while Suzanne Ward, a 1986 alumnus, donated $1.5 million. Ward lives in Oregon,but travels to every home and away Bulls football game.
“We are very excited to announce these latest major gifts toward the USF Football Center as we continue with terrific momentum toward the construction of this transformational facility, not only for the football program but for all our athletic teams,” athletic director Michael Kelly said in a news release.
More than $21 million has been raised for the Football Center, which will cost an estimated $40 million and include a 100-yard turf field, players lounge, and strength and conditioning center.
USF’s offense struggled at times but thanks in part to Tampa native Bentlee Sanders, field position wasn’t usually a problem.
Sanders, a Tampa Catholic alumnus, had five kickoff returns for 151 yards, including a 61-yard return in the third quarter. He leads the Bulls in kickoff return yards with 321, including a season-long 67-yarder.