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For USF football, defeats haven’t led to dissension (yet)

By all indications, Charlie Strong’s team hasn’t become fragmented despite a 4-5 season.
By all indications, USF coach Charlie Strong has managed to keep his team unified during a miserable season.
By all indications, USF coach Charlie Strong has managed to keep his team unified during a miserable season. [ CHRIS O'MEARA | AP ]
Published Nov. 15, 2019

TAMPA ― One of Charlie Strong’s old bosses, former Florida coach Ron Zook, often likened his struggling Gators teams to vessels taking on water.

Of course, the U.S.S. Zooker stayed afloat in Gainesville only three seasons.

As Year 3 of the Strong tenure winds down in Tampa, USF’s beleaguered coach finds himself in similar nautical peril; which is to say, he’s up to his trademark white turtleneck in it. That’s with the roughest seas ― consecutive games against ranked foes and a trip to UCF ― still to be navigated.

“We have three games left,” said Strong, whose team (4-5, 2-3 American Athletic Conference) must win two to extend its season. “And we’ve got to get to a bowl game.”

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But say this for the Bulls’ 59-year-old skipper: Even with his program submerging to a sub-.500 level, no sign of a mutiny has surfaced. No known defections, no arrests, nary a rogue tweet.

Even injured quarterback Blake Barnett, a graduate student whose college career likely is finished, remains on the sideline at home games. Subtract some ambiguous social-media posts by suspended slot receiver Johnny Ford regarding his future, and everyone still seems on board.

“This (locker room) is holding up a lot better than a lot of the outside people would probably think,” tight end Jacob Mathis said. “People are still pretty high-spirited, everyone’s been taking it game by game.”

If nothing else, credit Strong ― or his senior nucleus, or both ― with keeping his program from fragmenting amid one of its most miserable stretches (11 losses in the last 15 games).

As the Bulls prepare to host No. 17 Cincinnati (8-1, 5-0), those inside the locker room (and those on its fringe) insist the only glaring unrest resides among the fan base.

“When you go through some tough moments like we have this year, ups and downs, you start getting seniors sort of looking elsewhere,” first-year offensive coordinator Kerwin Bell said.

“And maybe sometimes with certain teams, you get the leadership start to deteriorate a little bit and some of the bottom half of the group sort of starting to separate and not really caring that much. But (Strong) has done a really good job of keeping this team together and keeping ’em motivated.”

Incentive likely would be far more difficult to manufacture if the Bulls were already bowl-ineligible. But USF is one goal-line turnover at Georgia Tech from being 5-4. Moreover, Cincinnati needed a fourth-quarter rally two weeks ago to eke out a 46-43 win at East Carolina, a team USF embarrassed, 45-20.

“I think when you see teams that fragment, I think it’s a defeatist attitude, and maybe they don’t feel like they have the opportunity to win games,” Bulls defensive coordinator Brian Jean-Mary said.

“I know we’re 4-5 right now, but we feel like a couple of different bounces, and if we made a couple more plays especially on our side of the ball, that record could be flipped or maybe add another win to that.”

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Also helping cohesion’s cause is a highly respected veteran corps including fifth-year seniors Mitch Wilcox, Greg Reaves, Kirk Livingstone, Billy Atterbury and Marcus Norman, among others. Such a group ― seniors who have played a ton ― simply didn’t exist on last season’s club, which lost its final six after a 7-0 start.

This year, a concerted effort exists to get these seniors to a bowl game.

“Right, exactly,” Mathis said. “I’m gonna do everything in my power to.”

“They kind of feel for us,” Reaves said.

“It hasn’t been like, the season that we wanted, and I just feel like they’re trying to commit these last three games (to the seniors). I’ve already told ‘em for a lot of us, this is our last time playing football ever again. Just give us all you got and we’ll give you everything that we’ve got.”

Sounds like all hands on deck. Which beats those same hands pointing fingers.

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