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Is USF football ready for prime time this time?

USF-Temple: Ten weeks after their unsightly season opener on ESPN, the Bulls play before another national audience
USF defensive end Greg Reaves (4) celebrates a defensive stop during the second half of the Bulls' 27-23 victory against BYU at Raymond James Stadium on Oct. 12. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times] [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Published Nov. 6

TAMPA ― Nearly 10 weeks have passed since USF’s nationally-televised, opening-night flop against Wisconsin, when things segued from humid to humiliating before you could say Jonathan Taylor for Heisman.

“It was pretty rough,” sophomore linebacker Dwayne Boyles said of that 49-0 loss. “I barely spoke those past two days after (the game).”

Many Bulls remained silent, if not sequestered. Had senior right tackle Marcus Norman flipped on College GameDay the next morning, he would’ve heard Rece Davis refer to USF’s performance as “brutal.” But he didn’t.

“For me at least, I couldn’t watch a single snap of football,” Norman said. “I kept my TV off, stayed in my room. I couldn’t watch anything; didn’t watch any other teams playing, anybody else in our conference playing.”

MORE BULLS: Five things to know about Temple

Two months later, the Bulls (4-4, 2-2 American Athletic Conference) are taking the national stage again, determined not to trip on it. Since that unsightly defeat, the humidity has dissipated, as has some of the pessimism surrounding USF.

A 3-1 October, sparked by a resurgent run game, has resuscitated bowl aspirations. The defense has recorded 20 takeaways, which ranks second nationally. Quarterback depth aside, the roster appears as healthy as it has been in weeks, thanks to a badly needed bye week.

Now comes a second crack at impressing a national audience, this time against dangerous AAC East Division foe Temple (5-3, 2-2). Can the Bulls make a splash instead of a thud this go-round?

“We’ve improved, I think we know that, on offense, on defense, special teams,” first-year offensive coordinator Kerwin Bell said.

“Now we need to go show that. Listen, Temple’s a good football team, they’re a good opponent, but we’ve got to go prove that to ourselves, to our fans and to everybody here in Tampa, and to the nation. This is a good time to do that.”

The defense, mercilessly gashed by the Badgers, is allowing 5.2 yards a play, which ranks fourth in the AAC. Though still vulnerable on third down (opponents convert nearly 47 percent of the time), its opportunism (20 takeaways) gives the Bulls a chance if and when the offense shows up.

Speaking of which, Bell’s unit ― while still sketchy at times ― barely resembles the discombobulated mess fans saw against Wisconsin.

Senior tailback Jordan Cronkrite, held to 9 rushing yards on six attempts against the Badgers, ran for 511 in four October contests.

USF senior Jordan Cronkrite (2) ran for 511 yards in four October contests. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times] [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

The line, which surrendered four sacks to Wisconsin, still struggles periodically in pass protection (its 3.62 sacks allowed per game ranks 10th in the AAC), but generally has responded favorably to coaches’ public challenges.

So has the receiving corps, openly called out by coach Charlie Strong in late October.

Third-year sophomore Randall St. Felix had a season-best day (five catches, 79 yards, one TD) in a 45-20 win at East Carolina two weekends ago. Additionally, 6-foot-4 Berkeley Prep alumnus Jacob Mathis (12 catches, 195 yards, two TDs) has emerged as a solid tight end complement to NFL draft prospect Mitch Wilcox (15 catches, 254 yards, four TDs).

MORE BULLS: USF men, women sweep opening night doubleheader

And when healthy, redshirt freshman quarterback Jordan McCloud ― who took over in Week Three ― has shown dual-threat promise.

Hampered by ankle, shoulder and wrist ailments at various points over the last month, McCloud (1,018 total yards, 14 total TDs, six interceptions) said Tuesday he’s now 100 percent.

“(Wisconsin) was the first game in Coach Bell’s system,” McCloud said.

“We’re a lot more confident on what they’re calling now. So I guess…the chemistry wasn’t there as much as it could’ve been, and now I feel like we’re gonna do really well Thursday night.”

The stage is set…again.

“We want to come out there and show what we can really do,” Boyles said. “After these past eight games, we actually have improved a lot and we’ve gained more confidence. So yeah, we definitely want to redeem ourselves.”

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

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