GREENVILLE, N.C. — Statement games are often easy to spot. One week after getting worked over by powerful Navy, Charlie Strong had his Bulls ready to play against East Carolina on Saturday.
USF gave up an opening kickoff return for a touchdown, then ripped the Pirates for 347 rushing yards on its way to a 45-20 rout in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
“We just needed to play well,” Strong said. “We hadn’t played well on the road and this was a road game that we needed to go get because now we get a week off. We get to heal up our wounds and get ready for some more big games.”
USF’s 2019 campaign has been frequently impacted by inconsistent offensive drives. With quarterback Jordan McCloud healthy on Saturday, however, the Bulls quickly began burying that narrative.
In response to East Carolina’s kick return touchdown, USF (4-4, 2-2 American Athletic Conference) rolled down the field and evened the score in only 10 plays. Jordan Cronkrite, much like he did all game, played a huge role on the drive and capped it off with a 5-yard touchdown plunge.
“Our mind-set, whether we had the ball or they had the ball first, we got to score on the first possession,” said McCloud, who sat out the second half as a precaution after injuring an ankle. “So when they did that, we just had to keep our same mind-set and that’s what we did.”
From there, USF’s defense set up good field position. A forced fumble by linebacker Patrick Macon at the end of the first quarter and an interception by defensive end Greg Reaves one quarter later paved the way for rushing touchdowns of 34 and 39 yards, respectively.
The second, a 34-yard run by wideout/wildcat QB Jah’Quez Evans, was one of six rushing attempts for the freshman from the quarterback position. After entering the game with 122 all-purpose yards in five games, Evans ― recruited to USF as a quarterback ― contributed 99 rushing yards and the touchdown.
“We got guys who can make plays and we haven’t been making them,” Strong said. “So for them to stand up tonight and go make those plays, it was really good because you got to have those plays.”
Less than a week after Strong challenged them by saying, “We just haven’t made any plays,” USF’s receivers basked in their share of the victory. Sophomore Randall St. Felix had five catches and 79 yards, making a leaping 18-yard touchdown grab midway through the second quarter.
“I actually took it as disrespect,” St. Felix said. “So when I feel disrespected, that’s when I step up to the plate and I did what I had to do, I worked hard in practice.”
St. Felix also had the Bulls’ longest catch of the game, a 30-yarder that helped him average better than 15 yards per reception.
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One week after logging just one catch for 11 yards against Navy, tight end Mitch Wilcox was again quiet in the pass-catching department. Targeted four times, the senior posted 13 yards on two catches while his backup, Berkeley Prep alumnus Jacob Mathis, logged 40 yards.
Nevertheless, Saturday’s victory did not take a record-setting effort by Wilcox because Cronkrite had his third 100-yard game of the season. Accompanied by two rushing touchdowns, the senior rushed for 129 yards on 12 attempts.
Fueled by Cronkrite and Evans, USF notched a season-high rushing yardage total and posted a season-best 525 total yards.
“Any time you can run the ball it’s going to open up the throwing game,” Strong said. “Jordan made some really big throws there. Our receivers made some catches which we haven’t done. We haven’t been consistent in just getting first downs and moving the chains and it was good to see that happen tonight.”
Equal parts offense and defense, USF held the Pirates (3-5,0-4) under 325 total, including only 222 passing yards and 102 yards on the ground.
“We still control our own destiny on our side of the conference,” Cronkrite said. “We’re just taking it game by game. We’re going to enjoy the win for the rest of the night and then tomorrow we’re back to work.”