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USF gets overwhelmed in opener at North Carolina State

The Bulls, hoping to shake the memories of a miserable 2020 season, only continue it with a 45-point loss.
North Carolina State receiver Christopher Toudle scores a touchdown as USF defensive back Christopher Townsel can only watch during the second half Thursday.
North Carolina State receiver Christopher Toudle scores a touchdown as USF defensive back Christopher Townsel can only watch during the second half Thursday. [ GERRY BROOME | AP ]
Published Sept. 3, 2021|Updated Sept. 3, 2021

After one of the toughest years in USF football history, the Bulls started their 25th season Thursday night at North Carolina State — and the struggles continued.

The Bulls were often manhandled, gaining only 271 total yards compared to 525 for the Wolfpack, in losing 45-0 in Raleigh, N.C.

“We never felt like we ever got into a rhythm, and that is terribly disappointing because I felt like we were going to play a lot better than that,” second-year USF coach Jeff Scott said. “The message to our guys is that this is 100-percent unacceptable, and every coach and every player has to own it, and we have to learn from it and move on.

“This is our first game, and we have 11 games ahead. I know we’re all disappointed, and we should be, but I know we’ll get back on Saturday, watch the tape, learn from it and get back on Monday and get after it.”

The first half in the opener for both teams set an ominous tone as the Bulls were outgained 297-92 while giving up several long plays, including runs of 26 and 32 yards and receptions of 33 and 51. N.C. State’s highly touted running back duo of Zonovan Knight and Ricky Person cranked up quickly, gaining 95 and 79 yards, respectively, in the half.

There were, however brief, a few highlights for the Bulls.

With 10:26 left in the second quarter, USF safety Matthew Hill made a leaping interception at the Bulls 35-yard line, then left-handed freshman quarterback Timmy McClain stepped in to provide a few sparks. Before that, junior Cade Fortin, who started for the Bulls in his return to North Carolina after a layoff of almost two years, completed only 3 of 9 passes for zero yards.

“We decided that we had to make a change (to McClain) because we just weren’t moving the ball,” Scott said. “I felt like we had to try something to get us going.”

McClain, who less than a year ago was leading Sanford Seminole High to the Class 8A state championship, scrambled on his first two snaps and ended up gaining 17 yards before ultimately leading the Bulls to the Wolfpack 34.

The drive, however, ended with a bungled snap by McClain and a punt by Andrew Stokes, who Scott said “was one of the few bright spots,” finishing the half with eight punts (45-yard average) on the team’s nine drives. The only other first-half USF drive ended with an interception.

By halftime, the game seemed pretty much over, with the Wolfpack leading 24-0.

USF had a couple of decent scoring opportunities but ended up throwing interceptions deep in Wolfpack territory, mistakes that exposed McClain’s inexperience. He finished 7-of-13 for 126 yards, with two picks. Fortin came back for a couple of series in the second half, but he never found a groove, finishing 7-of-20 for 41 yards and an interception.

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On the defensive side, linebacker Andrew Mims racked up an impressive 14 tackles, though many came after N.C. State’s backs shot through gaping holes in the line. By game’s end, the Wolfpack’s Knight and Person finished with 163 and 105 yards rushing, respectively.

“I think we definitely prepared well for (N.C. State), but we just didn’t execute,” Mims said. “It wasn’t anything special they did, it was us just not being in the right gaps and not executing on little things.”

It was a season opener that hurt even more considering what USF went through during the past year: first-year coach, followed by the pandemic, no spring practice, players opting out because of the coronavirus, outbreaks that wreaked havoc on the remaining roster, games canceled and a couple of players dismissed for disciplinary reasons.

In January, the Bulls began making a concerted push to improve on last season, something not lost on senior tight end Mitchell Brinkman.

“I don’t think (Thursday) represents what this team is about,” he said. “It’s frustrating, because I’ve seen all the work this team had put in. I hurt for my teammates and my coaching staff. We spent the last nine months trying to become better and doing all the right things we needed to do to get better. But I do believe we will get better from this.”

The Bulls barely get a chance to catch their breath, because on Sept. 11 No. 13 Florida comes to town.

“Most teams make their biggest improvement from Week 1 to Week 2,” Brinkman said. “That’s what we’re going to do. I really believe that.”

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