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A year after historic losing skid, can USF avoid a sequel?

The chances of another season-ending six-game losing streak grow greatly unless the Bulls win Saturday at ECU.
USF defensive back Mike Hampton (7) breaks up a pass thrown to East Carolina receiver Trevon Brown (88) during the first half of last season's 20-13 Bulls victory at Raymond James Stadium. The teams meet again Saturday in Greenville, N.C. [JONES, OCTAVIO  |  Tampa Bay Times]
USF defensive back Mike Hampton (7) breaks up a pass thrown to East Carolina receiver Trevon Brown (88) during the first half of last season's 20-13 Bulls victory at Raymond James Stadium. The teams meet again Saturday in Greenville, N.C. [JONES, OCTAVIO | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Oct. 25, 2019

TAMPA ― USF’s lockdown cornerback let his candor release Wednesday. Mike Hampton spared no sentiment when asked to specify the worst part of last year’s six-game season-ending skid.

“Just players accepting it,” the fourth-year junior said. “Taking a loss, laughing and giggling in the locker room, players not taking it serious. We can’t have that this year.”

By all accounts and most observations, such cavalier attitudes haven’t surfaced on the 2019 team. The starting lineup comprises no fewer than 12 upperclassmen, most of whom endured that unprecedented collapse (following a 7-0 start) and have no interest in a sequel.

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“Most definitely we have (a turnaround) in us, because we have pride,” senior middle linebacker Patrick Macon, who was not part of that historic drought, said following the Bulls’ 35-3 loss last weekend at Navy.

“The score doesn’t really show it, but we’re going out there and we still played. We could’ve just walked off the field, which has happened before in a game, but we went out there and fought. … We’re gonna execute the game plan next week, and the week after that and the week after that.”

But will that be enough to avoid another winless November?

We’ll respond to our own question with another question: You seen the rest of the Bulls’ schedule?

USF’s last four opponents ― Temple, No. 18 Cincinnati, Memphis and UCF ― own a combined record of 22-6. The Bulls (3-4, 1-2) will host three of those American Athletic Conference clashes, but will be favored in none of them.

For that matter, they’re only a two-point favorite Saturday at East Carolina (3-4, 0-3), where they will start either a quarterback still recovering from a shoulder separation (redshirt freshman Jordan McCloud) or a walk-on (Kirk Rygol).

“Even if we start (McCloud), if he can’t do it, we’ve got to have Kirk ready, so we’re giving him a lot of reps,” offensive coordinator Kerwin Bell said. “We’ve got to go win this football game, and whatever gives us the best chance, we’re gonna go with that option.”

If all of this rings eerily familiar, it should.

This time last year, USF was beginning the initial descent of what would become a freefall. During that swoon, its quarterback (Blake Barnett) missed three starts due to various injuries. While the offense was different, it struggled for consistency, much like the Bulls have in Bell’s pro-style system.

And all four of their November foes would make a bowl game, combining for a final record of 38-14.

“There’s absolutely no way we want to finish this season the way we did last season,” fifth-year senior right guard Billy Atterbury said. “So we’re gonna go out and do everything we can every single game.”

While pride will be essential to avoiding another plunge, it won’t be sufficient in and of itself.

Bell, who has spoken often of his playbook’s flexibility, must tweak it to protect whichever young quarterback is summoned.

“This offense is a pro-spread,” he said. “So we can go all the way from a pro-style where we’re dropping back and throwing these exotic routes, or we can go more to the spread run game, where we’re doing RPOs and screen games and stuff like that. So we’ve moved a little bit more in that direction just to try to help our quarterbacks.”

Elsewhere, the offensive line could try to replicate the performance it pulled off in its 27-23 win against BYU, and the defense ― second nationally in takeaways (18) ― could remain opportunistic.

Deliver that kind of complete game, and the Bulls could win Saturday on the road and perhaps steal a win somewhere in November. While that wouldn’t be enough to salvage a bowl berth or maybe even a coach’s employment, it would halt production of a grim sequel.

“I told our guys (Sunday) that we need to go win this game, and then when we get to November, it’s when some seasons really begin,” coach Charlie Strong said. “Everybody remembers November, but we’ve got to get to November. That’s why this game is so critical for us.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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