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Defense keeps USF afloat as offense fades

Journal: The Bulls’ streak of forcing at least one turnover in every game this season remains intact.
USF linebacker Dwayne Boyles (11) celebrates a sack on Temple quarterback Anthony Russo (15) during the first quarter at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa on Thursday night. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD  |  Tmes]
USF linebacker Dwayne Boyles (11) celebrates a sack on Temple quarterback Anthony Russo (15) during the first quarter at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa on Thursday night. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Tmes]
Published Nov. 8
Updated Nov. 8

TAMPA — The USF offense was slow to get going against Temple on Thursday night, and it never really found its stride.

Still, the Bulls were squarely in the game all night at Raymond James Stadium. Their defense could be thanked for that.

The Owls, who won 17-7, scored just one offensive touchdown; the other was a result of a third-quarter fumble recovery. Defensively, the Bulls were strong from the start.

On their first drive of the night, the Owls marched down to the red zone, but USF defensive tackle Tyrone Barber tackled running back Jager Gardner for a loss of 2 yards on fourth and 1. The second time Temple got the ball, the Owls had three consecutive incomplete passes before punting.

The USF defense posted another three-and-out on Temple’s next possession when linebacker Dwayne Boyles sacked quarterback Anthony Russo for a loss of 9 yards.

USF went into the game ranked third in the nation in tackles for loss per game (average 9.1). They had eight against Temple, along with three sacks.

Despite the spots of defensive success, linebacker Patrick Macon knows how they can improve.

“We played well, we did good. … the defense, though, still made mistakes,” he said. “That long run that broke, we should have made the play. That’s my bad. We just have to execute that better.”

Turnover talent

Perhaps the area in which USF has been the most consistent is in forcing turnovers. USF, which went into the game ranked second nationally with 20 takeaways, got one more early in the third quarter when defensive back Bentlee Sanders, a Tampa Catholic alumnus, intercepted Russo deep in USF territory. The Bulls have recovered at least one turnover in every game this season.

The Bulls entered Thursday having posted at least two takeaways in five of eight games, including a program-record eight against South Carolina State. Temple entered 107th nationally in takeaways with 15. The Owls got their 16th of the season on USF’s opening drive when quarterback Jordan McCloud fumbled in Temple territory. They recorded another in the second half, when safety Sam Franklin scooped up a fumble and returned it for a touchdown.

Something to celebrate

USF tight end Mitch Wilcox (89) makes a key reception as Temple safety Amir Tyler (25) and linebacker Audley Isaacs (30) defend during the third quarter. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Tampa Bay Times]

McCloud, who celebrated his 20th birthday Monday, knew tight end Mitch Wilcox had his own big day coming up Thursday. McCloud assured Wilcox he’d get him in the end zone to help him celebrate.

Against the Owls, Tarpon Springs native didn’t record any touchdown passes, but it was still a memorable night for Wilcox, who had big grabs throughout the game.

Wilcox, who turned 23, had three receptions for 26 yards before the break, further solidifying his role as USF’s leading receiver. In the third quarter, Wilcox made a leaping grab for 25 yards, extending a drive that resulted in the Bulls’ only score.

Wilcox has four touchdowns this season, two coming in a rout of South Carolina State on Sept. 14. He’s also just 22 yards from entering USF’s top 10 in all-time receiving yards for his career (1,285).

“Wilcox can do a lot of things, and we’ve got to find a way to get him the football, because he’s going to catch the ball and he’s going to make things happen,” coach Charlie Strong said. “We had some throws to him. A lot of times we didn’t get it to him. … The times he has a chance to make a play, he can do that, because he is a playmaker.”

A little extra help

The Bulls had trouble moving the ball at times, but in the moments they struggled, Temple defensive penalties moved the chains.

The Bulls lined up to punt on their first drive of the night, but the Owls got flagged for roughing the kicker, extending USF’s possession.

On USF’s next possession, McCloud completed a short pass to Wilcox, and the Bulls got 15 additional yards when Temple was called for targeting, causing linebacker Chapelle Russell to be ejected. Temple was flagged for targeting again in the second quarter, but the call was later overturned.

The Owls totaled seven penalties for 75 yards. USF had two for 15, one of which was a costly roughing the kicker foul.

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