TAMPA — For the first time in this pandemic-marred season, USF had no players unavailable for any reason — including COVID-19 — Friday night against Tulsa.
That pregame announcement regressed from uplifting to sobering as its latest nationally televised nightmare ensued.
Even fully staffed, the Bulls (1-5, 0-4 American Athletic Conference) currently are no match for a Division I-A foe with a steady pulse.
Failing to build on its recent promising offensive efforts, the Bulls fumbled and bumbled their way to a 42-13 loss to Tulsa (2-1, 2-0) before another sparse, socially distanced audience at Raymond James Stadium.
“Going into the open week, we’ve got to re-evaluate everything we’re doing as coaches and players,” first-year coach Jeff Scott said.
“We’ve really got to get better in every area. Part of that’s on coaching; we’ve got to look at what we’re doing and find a way to coach it and teach it better. And then we’ve got to play better and execute better.”
USF enters that bye week with a five-game losing streak and a rehashed quarterback dilemma created by Scott’s musical-chairs management of the position. USF managed only 113 yards and went 1-for-7 on third down in the first half, when the outcome remained mildly in question.
Third-year sophomore Jordan McCloud, declared the starter “going forward” less than two weeks ago by Scott, couldn’t spark his unit to seize some early breaks and was replaced by graduate transfer Noah Johnson.
“I just felt like we weren’t moving the ball on offense, and I wanted some new energy,” Scott said.
Johnson eventually was replaced by North Carolina transfer Cade Fortin. Who was replaced by Johnson. Who was spelled again by McCloud. And so on.
“Sometimes when things aren’t going well,” Scott said, “you just need to switch up who you put there behind the center.”
Back to that early Bulls momentum.
It included a 31-yard interception by freshman Daquan Evans — his second in as many games — and 60-yard punt return to the Tulsa 9-yard line by East Bay High alumnus KJ Sails. But the Bulls totaled 17 yards on the drives following those two big plays, settling for field goals of 39 and 25 yards by Jared Sackett.
“I felt all week we prepared really well,” said USF tight end Mitchell Brinkman, who had four receptions. "Coach (Charlie) Weis (USF’s offensive coordinator) had another great game plan, but it came down to we get the ball on the 9-yard line after a great punt return, we’ve got to finish in the end zone.
"That’s on the offense, just execution.”
By contrast, Tulsa — playing for the first time since its 34-26 upset of UCF three weeks earlier — was far more efficient offensively, collecting 462 yards.
On the Golden Hurricane’s fourth offensive play, 6-foot-1 junior JuanCarlos Santana beat Bulls veteran cornerback Mike Hampton in single coverage to snag a 33-yard touchdown pass from Zach Smith. Tulsa would mount scoring drives of 73 and 80 yards in the second quarter for a 21-6 halftime lead.
Johnson provided an initial spark for the Bulls upon his insertion, completing five of six passes for 46 yards on an 11-play drive late in the first half, but fumbled on a scramble up the middle on third and goal at the Tulsa 6.
That prompted Scott to insert Fortin to start the second half.
“That was the fourth quarterback fumble that we’ve had in the last six quarters. Just unacceptable," Scott said. "So I wanted to put Cade in; he deserved an opportunity and a shot.”
Fortin’s 33-yard run got USF to the Tulsa 6, but he was forced to exit after taking a vicious hit on third-and-goal. Johnson re-entered on fourth down from the 4, rolled right, and found slot receiver Bryce Miller isolated in the end zone for the touchdown.
Three plays later, Tulsa 214-pound junior Deneric Prince (15 carries, 109 yards, two TDs) took a handoff up the middle and sprinted untouched for a 62-yard score, giving Tulsa a 28-13 lead. NFL-bound linebacker Zaven Collins (six tackles, forced fumble) then essentially sealed things when he picked off Johnson on a short throw across the middle and returned it for a 38-yard touchdown.
“It’s just a lot of disappointment," Brinkman said.
"We turn on the film every week, and we know the opportunities that we have. We know that we’re not living up to our standard, so it’s definitely disappointing and frustrating. We have a great game plan. We take film really seriously, we have a ton of meetings ... and it’s just a lack of execution on game day.”
• It will be interesting to see how Scott handles this bye week. Will he make wholesale changes? Insert the young players and start playing for the future? Hold open on-campus tryouts for a quarterback?
• Tulsa is the fourth team to amass at least 200 rushing yards against the Bulls. Four players have posted 100-yard games against Glenn Spencer’s defense this season.
• Veteran CBS college basketball insider Jon Rothstein recently listed USF as one of five teams that should be “vastly improved” in 2020-21. It’s not football, but figured Bulls fans could use one uplifting tidbit.