TAMPA — Saturday evening’s grim skies and steady showers, products of a lurking tropical storm on the gulf’s fringe, seemed fitting opening-night conditions for these stormy times. Typical 2020.
USF weathered it, just as it has the COVID-19 crisis and turbulent social justice movement that could have fragmented any program. To be sure, the Bulls' emergence from the Raymond James Stadium southwest tunnel Saturday represented a major victory in itself.
The second triumph, not quite as resounding but just as gratifying, played out on a slick field over the next three or so hours.
Despite the absence of three starting offensive linemen (for undisclosed reasons), the Bulls kicked off the Jeff Scott era with a 27-6 victory against the Citadel in a barren stadium before a national TV audience.
“Today was just really, really special," said Scott, doused with a water-cooler bath (a clear breach of COVID-19 protocol) in the game’s waning seconds.
“Openers are always tough. All you have to do is watch games all over the country to see openers this year, with not having a spring practice and different challenges and all those things. And I felt like our guys were ready to play. They were focused.”
Operating behind that makeshift line, the Bulls churned out 302 rushing yards and had no turnovers. Defensively, new coordinator Glenn Spencer’s unit held the Citadel’s triple option to a pair of field goals.
Still, few long-term deductions can be made by a triumph against a Division I-AA foe with a 20th-century offense. Yet one can surmise Scott’s renovation of the Bulls program will include at least a couple of reclamation projects.
One is fifth-year senior DeVontres Odoms-Dukes. A Wharton alumnus with an inconsequential career (eight catches) entering Saturday, Dukes made his first career start and snagged a 10-yard Jordan McCloud pass in the right corner of the end zone for the first touchdown of the Scott era, giving USF a 7-3 lead.
That touchdown “was very important,” McCloud said. “Actually, I made a bet with people that he’d score the first touchdown on that exact route.”
Meantime, 5-foot-5 speedster Johnny Ford, suspended most of the 2019 season, logged action in the backfield and slot, running for 71 yards on nine carries. His biggest play: a 43-yard run late in the second quarter, setting up backup quarterback Noah Johnson’s 9-yard scoring run that gave the Bulls a 20-6 lead.
McCloud and Johnson went a combined 14-for-20 for 92 yards, with Johnson adding 49 on the ground.
“Life is full of new beginnings,” Scott said.
“I think Johnny needed a new start from maybe where he’d been in the past. ... Johnny has really done a good job of doing the things we’ve asked him to do. I’m excited because I don’t think that our fans have had an opportunity to really see his play-making ability.”
The special teams highlight: a fluke of sorts. USF increased its lead to 13-6 when Bulldogs punter Matt Campbell mishandled a snap in his own end zone, then botched a hurried attempt. Rookie Omarion Dollison snagged it at the goal line for what officially was a zero-yard scoring return.
Defensively, the Bulls periodically bent against the triple option, but held firm in the red zone. After converting its first three third downs, the Citadel went 5-for-15 the rest of the way and finished with 284 yards (to USF’s 404).
“The way their offense is built, they want to see what you’re doing defensively, then they change what they’re doing,” Scott said.
“We had to see how they were gonna play our looks, and then I think our guys kind of settled in and figured out what we needed to do up front to stop the dive. When we started having to make 'em go sideways to sideways, that’s when I knew we were gonna have a chance to have success.”
All in all, a feel-good night, but who can say how much the forecast improves in the coming weeks?
The Bulls travel to South Bend next weekend.
Then again, how much more challenging can Notre Dame be than the first nine months of 2020?
“This wasn’t just about one week or two weeks," Scott said. "This was nine months, and a very difficult nine months, quite honestly. So I want our guys to enjoy that today and tonight, then we’ll move on (Sunday) night and look forward to a great opportunity next week.”
Junior linebacker Antonio Grier made a sturdy case for American Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Week in the first 30 minutes alone. By halftime, Grier had 10 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble.
The Bulls' place-kicking concerns evidently are lingering into a third consecutive year. Newsome alumnus Spencer Shrader was 3-for-4 on PATs (a high snap resulting in the miss), and wasn’t close on a 43-yard field goal. Arkansas transfer Jared Sackett, who made the Lou Groza Award watch list, wasn’t available Saturday.
After averaging 8.5 penalties a game in 2019 (including nine or more in seven games), USF had only five (for 50 yards) Saturday night, including three in the first three quarters.