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Four reasons USF still can reach a bowl game

After going 3-1 in October, the Bulls have provided a sliver of postseason hope to their fans
BYU linebacker Max Tooley (31) tackles USF Bulls running back Jordan Cronkrite (2) during the second half of the Bulls' 27-23 win in Tampa in October. Cronkrite ran for 158 yards and two touchdowns. [OCTAVIO JONES  |  Times]
BYU linebacker Max Tooley (31) tackles USF Bulls running back Jordan Cronkrite (2) during the second half of the Bulls' 27-23 win in Tampa in October. Cronkrite ran for 158 yards and two touchdowns. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Published Oct. 29, 2019

TAMPA ― A season that seemed poised to flatline by mid-October still has a stable pulse.

Thanks to its October resurgence, USF (4-4, 2-2 American Athletic Conference) enters the regular season’s final month still pursuing bowl eligibility. Considering the schedule’s brutal back end (Temple, No. 17 Cincinnati, No. 24 Memphis, UCF), the Bulls’ odds of December football remain long, but at least they’ve given fans reasons to believe.

Here are four of them.

1. The run game has resurfaced

USF running back Jordan Cronkrite (2) runs past East Carolina defensive back Colby Gore (26) during the Bulls' 45-20 triumph Saturday. [GREG THOMPSON/ICON SPORTSWIRE | Icon Sportswire]

Instead of overhauling the offensive line after a dreadful start, USF’s coaches opted for just one significant tweak: moving senior Billy Atterbury and sophomore Donovan Jennings back to their natural spots at right guard and left tackle, respectively.

That move, combined with some public challenges of the veterans, has resulted in a reborn run game. Senior Jordan Cronkrite, limited to 76 yards on 33 carries in his first four games, has 511 on 75 handoffs (6.81 yards per carry) in his last four.

Even in the Bulls’ lone October embarrassment, a 35-3 loss at Navy, Cronkrite still managed 76 yards on 17 carries (4.47 ypc) against the AAC’s top run defense. It’s also worth noting two of the Bulls’ last four foes (Temple, Memphis) give up more than 160 rushing yards a game.

“Whenever we’re able to be physical and run the football,” coach Charlie Strong said, “it just shows who our team is.”

MORE BULLS: Three takeaways from USF’s romp at East Carolina

2. The four-legged quarterback

USF quarterback Jordan McCloud (12) runs with the ball as Navy safety Kevin Brennan (10) tries to stop him during the first half of Navy's 35-3 victory in Annapolis on Oct. 19. [JULIO CORTEZ | AP]

An injury-decimated team that seemed on its last legs at quarterback now suddenly has two fresh ones. Freshman Jah’Quez Evans dazzled ― if not dominated ― as the wildcat option at quarterback at East Carolina, darting his way to 99 yards (including a 34-yard scoring run) on only six carries.

“He does a great job wherever he is,” Cronkrite said after Saturday’s game. “He goes from receiver to quarterback in practice; he just sticks with it and has a great attitude about it. He gives us a different dynamic and it’s great to have.”

All 99 of Evans’ yards occurred in the first half, before starter Jordan McCloud exited with a mild ankle injury. McCloud, meantime, finished 9-for-12 for 102 yards and two TDs in that span, running for 49 yards of his own.

Translation: The tandem kept ECU woefully off-balance. No reason to believe Kerwin Bell won’t continue interspersing Evans into the game plan moving forward.

3. The Bulls force turnovers

USF senior defensive end Greg Reaves (4) had an interception Saturday at East Carolina, his third takeaway of the season. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

After collecting two more takeaways (one interception, one fumble) at ECU, the Bulls now rank first nationally with 20 takeaways. That figure would be more impactful if they hadn’t committed 13 turnovers of their own (for a plus-0.88 margin).

Still, anyone who manages 2½ takeaways per contest will find themselves in most ― most ― contests.

4. Any given Saturday (or Thursday)

College football’s capricious nature is arguably is one of its most endearing qualities. Show of hands: How many envisioned USF clawing its way back to 4-4 after that SMU debacle?

Bottom line: It’s a long season, and a team’s fortunes can fluctuate both drastically and dramatically. Temple (5-3, 2-2) was on the fringe of the AP top 25 before surrendering nearly 1,300 total yards in lop-sided losses to SMU and UCF.

Meantime, Memphis (7-1, 3-1) is hosting ESPN’s College GameDay this week only because a Tulsa kicker missed a chip-shot field goal to preserve the Tigers’ 42-41 victory.

The Owls and Tigers come to Tampa on Nov. 7 and 23, respectively. Both games represent daunting challenges for USF, but not insurmountable ones like Cincy and UCF (in Orlando) appear to be.

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

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