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Freshman Kelley Joiner Jr. shines as injuries hit USF offense

With Jordan Cronkrite and Trevon Sands out against Memphis, Joiner carries the rushing load for the Bulls.
USF wide receiver Kelley Joiner Jr. (10) cuts in front of Memphis defensive back La'Andre Thomas (12) after a catch during the first half Saturday.
USF wide receiver Kelley Joiner Jr. (10) cuts in front of Memphis defensive back La'Andre Thomas (12) after a catch during the first half Saturday. [ CHRIS O'MEARA | AP ]
Published Nov. 24, 2019

TAMPA — Potential bowl eligibility was riding on USF’s matchup with No. 18 Memphis on Saturday, and the Bulls were down two key offensive players when they perhaps needed them the most. Leading rusher Jordan Cronkrite and running back Trevon Sands were sidelined with shoulder injuries, leaving the Bulls’ options limited in the run game.

On USF’s first drive, freshman running back Kelley Joiner Jr. gave the Bulls a little hope, rushing for 60 yards and setting up a touchdown that gave them the lead for most of the first quarter. But the Bulls struggled offensively the rest of the way in a 49-10 loss.

Joiner finished with a team-high 115 yards on 13 carries, but no other Bull had more than 14 rushing yards. USF (4-7, 2-5) finished with just 170 yards of total offense.

Related: RELATED: Senior day swoon: USF trampled by No. 18 Memphis

“The thing about (Joiner), he’s so small and quick, but he’s fast enough to run away from people,” USF coach Charlie Strong said. “We have so much young talent out there on that field, it was great to see him play as well as he played. … We just could’ve done a better job at protecting and we probably would have been able to run the ball.”

Cronkrite and Sands were sorely missed. Cronkrite has 687 rushing yards, 511 of which came in October and helped him reach the No. 8 spot on USF’s all-time list (1,808 yards). Sands is USF’s fourth-leading rusher this year and had his first career rushing touchdown against Cincinnati.

Ball hawks

USF defensive back KJ Sails (9) runs the ball after getting an interception late in the first quarter.
USF defensive back KJ Sails (9) runs the ball after getting an interception late in the first quarter. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]

With not much going right for USF offensively, the Bulls needed any help they could get to move the ball. In the first half, they got it with a pair of interceptions, one setting up a 37-yard Coby Weiss field goal in the first quarter.

On third and 7 from the Memphis 23-yard line, KJ Sails, an East Bay High alumnus, picked off quarterback Brady White and returned it 40 yards to put the Bulls in Tigers territory. Weiss’ kick gave USF a 10-7 lead and represented a welcome change from the previous week against Cincinnati, when USF missed four field goals.

In the second quarter, USF freshman Daquan Evans intercepted d White in the red zone. USF attempted a 43-yard field goal on the drive, but Weiss missed it.

“I feel like we could have capitalized a little bit on the turnovers,” Sails said. “It didn’t go the way we wanted, but we’ve got to play better on defense to give our offense a chance.”

USF went into the game tied for third nationally in turnovers gained (22), behind Clemson (24) and Illinois (26). The Bulls have had a takeaway in every game this season, and Saturday’s was the sixth game with at least two.

Senior sendoff

Before kickoff, USF recognized 17 seniors, a group that has participated in the winningest four-year span in school history (2015-18). But after the game began, perhaps the most notable senior was conspicuously quiet.

Tight end Mitch Wilcox, a Tarpon Springs alumnus, was targeted just once, a reception in the second quarter for a loss of 4 yards. Wilcox is ninth all time in career receiving yards at USF, and he is ranked as one of the best NFL prospects at tight end.

“You look at what Mitch has done for this program, he’s been an unbelievable player,” Strong said. “I know this, that his future is going to be bright for him because he’ll continue on.

“There were 17 seniors out there this evening, and you just wanted it to end a little better for them.”