TAMPA ― Even with its recent resurgence, USF still entered Thursday’s nationally televised contest against Temple needing a momentous November to achieve bowl eligibility.
But following the Owls’ 17-7 triumph, momentous has been downgraded to miraculous.
“This is a tough one,” said third-year coach Charlie Strong, whose popularity has sunk to Skip Holtz levels following the program’s 11th loss in its past 15 contests. “It’s a hard one to swallow.”
Now for the gulp: The Bulls (4-5, 2-3 American Athletic Conference) must win two of their next three ― against No. 19 Cincinnati, No. 19 Memphis and at UCF ― to even gain bowl eligibility.
At this rate, gaining a fifth victory could be a stretch.
“Obviously losing always sucks, no matter how much you lose by, who you lose to," quarterback Jordan McCloud said.
"But we just know that we’ve got to win these next three. We’ve got to get to a bowl game. That’s our mindset right now. We’ve got to do it for the seniors mostly.”
On a mild night before a sparse audience (generously announced at 26,214), USF could muster no offensive momentum (and only 61 rushing yards), despite its defense providing myriad chances to do so. On Temple’s first possession of the night, tackle Tyrone Barber stuffed tailback Jager Gardner for a 2-yard loss on fourth-and-2 from the Bulls 7.
Three other Owls drives ended on third-down sacks, by linebacker Dwayne Boyles, rush end Darius Slade and cornerback Bentlee Sanders. Another ended with a Sanders interception inside his own 20.
Subtract Gardner’s 57-yard run, sparked by a broken tackle in the backfield, and Temple had only 107 yards in the first half.
But while the defense clearly was performing well enough to win, the offense barely performed well enough to score.
McCloud, who earlier this week proclaimed himself fully healthy for the first time in more than a month, fumbled at Temple’s 29 while trying to escape the pocket on his first possession. It would serve as a harbinger of the harassment to come for the redshirt freshman, who was sacked nine times and forced to throw 38 passes (completing 23).
“I love my O-line, some of the sacks honestly were on me," said McCloud, who lost left tackle Donovan Jennings (ankle) early on. "I’ve got to get the ball out quicker, and we’ve just got to execute more.”
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The Bulls punted four times, fumbled twice and gave up six of those sacks before even brandishing a pulse. The second fumble, by receiver Terrence Horne, was recovered by Citrus High alumnus Sam Franklin, who scampered for a 39-yard touchdown to give the Owls a 14-0 lead with 4:45 to play in the third quarter.
“We knew (Temple’s pressure) was going to be an issue,” Strong said.
“We knew when we got to third down we’d have to block their outside rushers and we knew those guys were going to come, and we didn’t do a good job of blocking them. They beat us outside, they beat us up and under, and we tried to chip them some and they were still able to get on (McCloud).”
USF’s final gasp occurred after Franklin’s scoop-and-score, when it drove 90 yards in seven plays.
Walk-on slot receiver Bryce Miller’s 14-yard scoring catch from McCloud was set by up wideout Xavier Weaver’s 40-yard sweep and tight end Mitch Wilcox’s 25-yard grab in traffic.
The Bulls never threatened again, inexplicably leaving two timeouts in their pocket with a 10-point deficit and a little more than two minutes to play upon getting the ball a final time.
“We felt like we could get the ball out and we wanted to move it," Strong said. "I mean, that didn’t have nothing to do with it. We’re down 10, just move the ball.”
Now, bowl aspirations have gone from pipe dream to preposterous.
“We have courage, pride,” said graduate-transfer linebacker Patrick Macon (team-high nine tackles). “We dig deep. We fell short this week, but it’s not going to be repetitive. Losing, that’s a bad drug. We should get that out of our system.”
Contact Joey Knight at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.
Takeaways from Thursday night
• Thursday’s announced attendance of 26,214 included a sparsely-filled USF student section. Oh well, we all know how diligent college students generally are about attending those Friday morning classes.
• On its third possession of the night, USF bypassed a 52-yard field goal attempt (in minimal wind) for a futile fourth-and-3 try, a clear reflection of its lack of faith in a long-range kicker. The Bulls haven’t attempted a kick longer than 43 yards this season.
• USF’s scoreless first half marked the third time in nine games in which it was shut out in the first 30 minutes, and the fifth time in which it failed to score a first-half touchdown.