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USF drops heartbreaker at Memphis, 34-33

The Bulls, who held the lead most of the game, have now lost six in a row, their worst skid since 2018.
With Noah Johnson under center from the start Saturday, the Bulls made some progress offensively.
With Noah Johnson under center from the start Saturday, the Bulls made some progress offensively. [ USF Athletics ]
Published Nov. 7, 2020|Updated Nov. 7, 2020

A promising first half ultimately gave way to familiar defeat for USF on Saturday afternoon in Memphis.

After a huge defensive stand in Memphis' red zone to end the second quarter put the Bulls 3-for-3 on fourth-down stops — and preserved a 27-13 lead — the Tigers found their footing in the final four minutes of the game.

A stellar defense turned to mush late and Noah Johnson’s steady guidance of the offense wasn’t enough to pull out the win for USF, who fell 34-33. It is the sixth straight defeat for the Bulls, their longest skid since 2018.

Coach Jeff Scott said he obviously wasn’t happy with the outcome, but this was USF’s best game of the year.

"I would say you could probably look around the country, I don’t know how many 1-5 teams would come out and play the way that we played today for the first 3.5 quarters,” Scott said.

USF held Memphis (4-2, 3-2 American Athletic Conference) to under 100 yards rushing, but quarterback Brady White ultimately regained the hot hand, with 437 yards and four touchdowns on 30-for-50 passing. This despite the Bulls defense stepping up on the later downs and sacking White twice (the most sacks they have recorded in a game this season). The Tigers were 10-for-19 on third downs and 1-for-4 on fourth.

USF linebacker Antonio Grier Jr. and the defense were pretty stellar through a good chunk of Saturday's game at Memphis.
USF linebacker Antonio Grier Jr. and the defense were pretty stellar through a good chunk of Saturday's game at Memphis. [ USF Athletics ]

“I think our defense really did a good job of playing the run, well, pretty much all day,” Scott said. “I felt like early on we had them playing behind the chains and doing some things we really wanted to do going into the game.”

The Bulls (1-6, 0-5) were limited at cornerback with Ben Knox unavailable, and Scott said that hurt them late. The final touchdown drives for Memphis covered 72 and 76 yards, respectively.

“(White) did a good job of finding those windows and delivering the ball with the only place that it could be to be completed,” Scott said.

Johnson, the Armwood High product making his first start of the season, didn’t have a perfect first quarter, but he found some rhythm during the second. Loss aside, Johnson’s efforts translated into USF’s most well-rounded game of the season.

“I thought we moved the ball really well,” said Johnson, who played the entire game. “I know there’s been a big emphasis on the passing game, and I felt like that was there ... I just feel like as an offense, we did some really good things and some things that we have to clean up.”

The Alcorn State graduate transfer finished with 217 yards on 20 for 29 passing, the second-best passing performance of the season behind the 306 yards USF notched against East Carolina on Oct. 10.

After both teams exchanged a pair of field goals, USF gained momentum with a 51-yard pick-six from Daquan Evans early in the second quarter. On USF’s next offensive series, Johnson connected with Kelley Joiner Jr. on a 75-yard touchdown, then capped a seven-play drive before the half with a 5-yard touchdown toss to Mitch Brinkman.

The second half didn’t have the same offensive burst for the Bulls, but another pair of field goals from Spencer Shrader was enough to keep the Bulls ahead — until Memphis' final touchdown with a minute remaining.

Shrader went 4-for-4 on field goals, making him the first Bulls kicker since Emilio Nadelman (against Cincinnati on Oct. 14, 2017) to connect for that many in a single game.

“(His play) definitely gave us a shot,” Scott said. “It put us in a position to be able to win the game.”

But the Bulls ultimately were “out executed,” Scott said.

“We’re going to learn,” he said. “We’re on a journey, we’re on a climb. For whatever reason, we’ve been in a valley for the large majority of this year, and our goal is to kind of dig ourselves out of this valley that we’re here in these last few games.”

Quick takes

• Shrader converted USF’s first 40-plus yard field goal since the Bulls' 2018 opener against Elon. The Newsome High graduate converted from 49, 47, 41 and 46 yards Saturday afternoon.

• Johnson’s 75-yard pass to Joiner in the second quarter was his longest throw of the season, besting his 36-yard pass at Notre Dame on Sept. 19. His 217 passing yards also bested his 150 yards at Tulsa (the weekend before last week’s bye).

Contact Mari Faiello at mfaiello@tampabay.com. Follow @faiello_mari.

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