Saturday’s proceedings in Cincinnati began with a comedy of miscues — four turnovers in the first 11 plays — before regressing into a scene far less laughable for USF fans.
It included a team (1-2, 0-1 American Athletic Conference) with no answer at quarterback, zero offensive rhythm, abysmal special teams and a gritty but woefully depleted defense.
Any delusions about the rebuild of USF being expeditious under new coach Jeff Scott were vanquished on a crisp southern Ohio afternoon. Despite plenty of its own self-infliction, No. 15 Cincinnati (3-0, 1-0) stabilized its power run game and ultimately broke away for a 28-7 victory.
“This is where we are," said Scott, whose team has totaled seven points in eight quarters against Division I-A competition. "We can’t point fingers and act like it isn’t going on; it is what it is.”
The win was Cincinnati’s 16th in a row at home, and perhaps the most unsightly of the streak. A quarter and a half into the contest, the teams had combined for six turnovers, with each committing three. They finished with a collective nine.
Five of them were interceptions by USF quarterbacks, tying the program single-game record.
“It’s been two weeks (since the most recent game)," Scott said. "And all we spent the two weeks on is throwing the ball, and we came out here today and threw at the wrong team.”
Intent on being more aggressive downfield, the Bulls’ most effective pass was thrown by a receiver, on a trick play. Randall St. Felix took a pitch from tailback Johnny Ford and tossed an 18-yard strike to quarterback Jordan McCloud to the Bearcats 2-yard line, setting up Ford’s 2-yard scoring run.
McCloud, the most effective quarterback of the day (12-for-21, 137 yards), was the third employed. Freshman Katravis Marsh got the starting nod, and threw two interceptions on his first four passes.
North Carolina transfer Cade Fortin, making his Bulls debut after being listed as unavailable the first two games, went 2-for-6 for 14 yards, brandishing velocity but struggling with his accuracy.
“Our game plan going in was to give Katravis Marsh and Cade some opportunity in the first half," Scott said. "I just didn’t feel like we were getting in a rhythm. ... I just felt like I needed to change it up going into the second half.”
McCloud played nearly the whole second half, tossing the final two picks, before Fortin re-entered for USF’s final possession.
“I felt like once (McCloud) settled in, he moved our offense," Scott said. "We had the two picks that he’s got to learn from. He protected the ball pretty well to this point of the season in the first two games.”
Cincinnati, meantime, pulled away mostly behind sturdy tailback Gerrid Doaks (22 carries, 102 yards), and a 97-yard kickoff return by sophomore Tre Tucker immediately after the Bulls' lone touchdown that cut its deficit to 21-7.
Credit the Bulls' short-handed defense for keeping things competitive to that point.
Despite missing eight defensive players — five of them key contributors — USF intercepted veteran Bearcats quarterback Desmond Ridder three times and held Cincinnati to 332 total yards, 96 below its season average.
“What little momentum we had," receiver DeVontres Dukes said, "they pretty much took it with that (kick return).”
• USF has not converted a field goal of 40 or more yards in its past 26 games, dating to the 2018 opener. Jared Sackett’s 45-yard try sailed wide left by a few inches Saturday.
• If nothing else, the Bulls are a far more disciplined team than they’ve been in recent memory. They were whistled for only three penalties Saturday and have totaled only 12 this season.
• How depleted was USF’s defense? Two of its top five tacklers — linebackers Brian Norris (11) and Mac Harris (8) — were listed as third-teamers on the depth chart entering the game.