TAMPA ― On a clear day bereft of humidity, USF’s 17 seniors encountered a sparse audience as they ran onto the Raymond James Stadium field a final time, and an even smaller one as they exited it in dejection.
Strewn in between were missed field goals, missed blocks, missed tackles and missed opportunities. Such are the snapshots of an anemic program.
USF’s bowl aspirations formally flamed out Saturday as the Bulls quickly relinquished early momentum in a 49-10 loss to No. 18 Memphis (10-1, 6-1 American Athletic Conference) that will go down as one of the worst offensive exhibitions in program history.
USF (4-7, 2-5) will sit out the bowl season for the first time since 2014, Willie Taggart’s second year. Its season ends Friday night at UCF; whether Charlie Strong’s tenure ends Saturday remains the program’s most pressing question.
“We just could never get any rhythm at all going on offense,” Strong said, “and then it just beats down your defense.”
Before a generously announced crowd of 25,136, USF established program records for fewest first downs (five) and passing yards (44) in a game, and finished with more punts (nine) than pass completions (six). By game’s end, Strong and beleaguered first-year coordinator Kerwin Bell had inserted three quarterbacks in a futile attempt to muster momentum.
The starter, redshirt freshman Jordan McCloud, finished 5-for-14 for 45 yards, re-aggravating an injury to his throwing hand.
“I think he may have bruised his thumb, but it was more of a coach’s decision, just trying to get somebody back there,” said Strong, who watched his line surrender four sacks. "But we weren’t protecting ‘em so it wouldn’t have mattered who lined up back there.”
Therein lie two of Strong’s more plausible alibis for 2019: injuries and youth. Both were on unflattering display Saturday.
Senior tailbacks Jordan Cronkrite and Trevon Sands sat out with shoulder injuries, junior defensive tackles Kelvin Pinkney and Kevin Kegler also were sidelined by injuries, and middle linebacker Patrick Macon (ankle) was limited to a cameo.
Additionally, the image of Blake Barnett limping out for senior day in a protective boot reminded fans of how green USF remains at quarterback.
Nonetheless, the senior day pageantry was followed by a promising start, courtesy of sleek freshman Kelley Joiner Jr. (13 carries, 115 yards), the only healthy scholarship tailback available.
Joiner, who ran for 1,000 yards in only three games as a senior at Groveland’s South Lake High before breaking his leg, broke loose for 13 yards on his first run of the day. He found a seam in the A-gap on his second carry, dashing for 47 yards to set up sophomore walk-on Dave Small’s 1-yard touchdown.
The rest of the half, the Bulls managed 31 yards on 22 plays. Interceptions by KJ Sails and Daquan Evans on consecutive drives gave USF possession at Memphis’ 23 and 42, respectively, but the Bulls converted the picks into three total points.
USF finished with 170 yards, its second-lowest total of the season.
Meantime, Tigers graduate-transfer Brady White (18-for-28, 222 yards) found his normal groove following his sketchy start, directing TD drives on five of his last six possessions before being spelled by sophomore Connor Adair with a 42-10 lead.
His most memorable sequence occurred in the second quarter. Facing second-and-38 after an errant snap, White found receiver Damonte Coxie for a 20-yard gain. He then tossed a short throw across the middle to Kedarian Jones, whose defender slipped, allowing him to dash for a 50-yard TD.
“It was painful," said Bulls linebacker Dwayne Boyles (10 tackles). "But you’ve just got to let that go.”
That bizarre conversion gave Memphis a 21-10 lead. And the pageantry had regressed to a pummeling.
“It definitely hurts for our seniors,” Sails said. “I just feel for those guys, it hurts. But we’ve got a rivalry game coming up, and I’m pretty sure that everyone is going to be jacked up about it.”
Contact Joey Knight at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls
Joey Knight’s takeaways
• Junior punter Trent Schneider is compiling a solid case for first-team all-AAC honors. Schneider, who entered the weekend with the league’s second-best average (45.0), smashed a 65-yarder from the back of his own end zone in the first quarter. Schneider averaged 51.6 yards on nine attempts.
• Memphis’ touchdown just before halftime was a clinic in clock management that USF might be wise to study. The Tigers took over at their own 27 with 1:34 to play and three timeouts, and still had two in their pocket when they scored with five seconds to go.
• A swarming of the field to protest climate change might have been a welcome sight Saturday at Raymond James Stadium, if only to break up USF’s offensive monotony.