TAMPA — Due to a litany of COVID-19 precautions, the pageantry for USF’s 24th football homecoming Saturday was significantly cut back.
The same might be said for the Jeff Scott honeymoon.
Those fans content to see incremental progress in Year 1 of the Scott tenure instead have been subject to maddening inconsistency in all three phases. The disarray continued in Saturday’s 44-24 loss to East Carolina (1-2, 1-1) before a sparse, socially-distanced audience at Raymond James Stadium.
“We’ve got to coach better, and we’ve got to play better, bottom line, and that will come with time," said Scott, clearly perplexed by his team’s effort after what he deemed a sparkling week of practice.
"I firmly believe that our better days are ahead of us. I believe in the players that are in that locker room. I don’t quite understand why we haven’t played better than we have, but hey, that’s my job to get it fixed.”
The victory was the Pirates' first against an American Athletic Conference foe not named Connecticut since November 2017. Only seven days before, they lost by 20 to middle-of-the-road Sun Belt opponent Georgia State.
But in USF (1-3, 0-2), they encountered a program hamstrung by feeble recruiting in recent years, and clearly still struggling to get its bearings under a new regime.
“Reality’s setting in,” Scott said. “We knew it wasn’t going to be easy. Any time that you’re coming into a challenging situation, it’s going to take time.”
Befitting a team out of sorts, the Bulls were humiliated on a night when they got some steady quarterback play.
Third-year sophomore Jordan McCloud went 26-for-35 for 298 yards, but was sacked four times and fumbled once as the Bulls failed to muster a ground game (34 carries, 92 yards) to complement him.
“There’s some good things there, but I want to go back and watch the tape and fully evaluate it before we make any decisions, but I was proud of Jordan,” Scott said. “He played his butt off. We didn’t protect him well at times.”
The futility belied a promising start. USF scored on its opening drive for the first time in five games dating to last November, marching 65 yards in only six plays.
But its next three possessions ended with a punt, fumble and failed fourth-down try inside the Pirates 10.
“A big emphasis this week was being solid from start to finish," McCloud said. "And we didn’t do that tonight.”
Meantime the Bulls defense, sturdy and opportunistic the previous weekend at Cincinnati, suffered lapses in sequence and again struggled to get off the field on third down, where ECU went 8-for-16.
Aggravating matters: Two safeties, former Tampa Catholic standout Bentlee Sanders and Armwood alumnus Mekhi LaPointe, were listed as “unavailable" for unspecified reasons. So was linebacker Dwayne Boyles and defensive end Tyrone Barber.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the Pirates scored on their first four possessions.
“We were lined up and they were pretty much doing whatever they wanted to do," Scott said.
East Carolina scored its first touchdown on fourth and goal from the 2, when quarterback Holton Ahlers found halfback Darius Pinnix isolated in the left flat for an easy score, giving the guests a 10-7 lead.
On the the Pirates' following drive, on third and 7 from their own 25, Ahlers found 6-foot-2 sophomore C.J. Johnson for a 75-yard touchdown when freshman strong safety Chris Townsel appeared to hurt himself in coverage. USF fumbled on the ensuing possession, when McCloud had the ball popped loose on a third-down scramble, and freshman Rahjai Harris dashed for a 42-yard TD the very next play.
“I know from my end, it was the second week in a row that I played a position that I hadn’t practiced all week," said free safety Brock Nichols, a nickel back the week prior.
USF responded, albeit briefly. McCloud’s 52-yard downfield strike to freshman Omarion Dollison set up a 7-yard scoring run by Johnny Ford, who broke a tackle in the backfield and tiptoed along the left sideline into the end zone, cutting USF’s deficit to 24-14.
But special teams — an embarrassment for USF to this point — continued to stymie the Bulls' momentum.
An onside-kick try after Ford’s touchdown ended with USF being whistled for kick-catching interference. A possession later, punter Trent Schneider couldn’t handle a low snap and failed to get off an attempt. Harris scored on a 10-yard run the next play en route to a 31-17 East Carolina halftime lead.
The Pirates essentially sealed things with an eight-play, 50-yard drive late in the third quarter, capped by Ahlers' 14-yard scoring strike to Johnson in the left corner of the end zone on third and 12.
“I believe in this group,” Scott said. “I believe that we’re going to get better, and eventually how we’re practicing is going to translate over to our games. It didn’t get this way overnight. I knew that when I came down here.”
• The Bulls, who haven’t had a difference maker out wide the past couple of years, may have found one in junior Latrell Williams. The Tennessee transfer had eight catches for 93 yards Saturday.
• For the first time this season, USF had all of its projected starting offensive linemen available and suited up. Yet East Carolina, which didn’t record a sack in its first two games, had four in the first three quarters. “What we’ve got to remember is, this is their first game back,” Scott said. “When you’re in quarantine, you’re not practicing, you’re not able to come out to practice. ... This is their first game. They’re going to get better.”
• By any objective measure, Saturday’s game was the most winnable one remaining on USF’s schedule. Let that sink in.