TAMPA — Before the season started, USF coaches and players talked about how tough they expected their first two games to be: at North Carolina State in the opener, followed by Florida at home.
There was plenty of optimism, even after second-year coach Jeff Scott and the Bulls struggled through a pandemic-canceled spring and 1-8 season (0-7 in the American Athletic Conference) in 2020.
Reality, it turns out, hasn’t been any easier.
USF was pummeled 45-0 at N.C. State in the season opener, and UF looms as 28.5-point favorites.
Now the Bulls are talking about keeping perspective in the face of a huge question: How does a program that is struggling to build itself up remain resilient through a stretch like this?
Scott, as he has done throughout his tenure, spoke directly to the topic at a recent news conference.
“This season wasn’t built around the first two games,” he said. “If that was the case, it was going to be a pretty tough deal. We’re building toward a 12-game season. It was a great opportunity last week for us to play, but that’s what it was, one opportunity. This week is another opportunity to get better.”
Despite the rough start at N.C. State, Scott said he was encouraged by a couple of things: his team never quit and showed up on Saturday ready to go to their meetings.
“They opened their notebooks,” Scott said, “ready to take notes and learn from it.”
For starters, they learned that much of their struggles stemmed from “failing to execute assignments” as opposed to getting dominated physically.
“It was very disappointing to watch that film and see all the plays that could have been but weren’t made,” USF senior tight end Mitchell Brinkman said. “We learned a lot. But that was one game, and we’re not going to let it define our season. We have 11 more opportunities to play games. We are going to get better and better.”
From the looks of the 13th-ranked Gators, who are coming off a solid 35-14 home victory over Florida Atlantic, perspective might be important for USF.
Florida has size, strength and speed to spare.
On the ground alone, the Gators set a school record for most rushing yards in a season opener with 400. Backup quarterback Anthony Richardson led his team with 160 yards on seven carries, while Jesuit alum Malik Davis ran 14 times for 104 yards.
Defensively, UF looks improved from 2020. Against FAU, the Gators collected six sacks, eight quarterback hurries and two turnovers while holding the Owls scoreless until the final five minutes.
For USF, endurance — particularly because Saturday’s kickoff is set for the heat of the day at 1 p.m. — could be a factor on both sides of the ball, particularly on defense, where 15 players saw the vast majority of snaps against N.C. State. By game’s end, fatigue was a blatant factor in the Bulls’ struggles.
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USF defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer said more of his defenders need to step up: “We cannot survive a season playing it that way. We have to have more guys contribute.”
Offensively, USF wants to establish a starting quarterback before the conference schedule begins in a few weeks. Cade Fortin again will get the start, but freshman Timmy McClain is expected to receive some snaps as well, as he did against N.C. State. In his first start since 2018 with North Carolina, Fortin last week looked rusty, completing only 7 of 20 passes for 41 yards with one interception.
Scott said he is looking for improvement and consistency from all of his players.
“What I’ve learned from my experiences is that you have to show up every day and be consistent, day in and day out, no matter what is happening or who you are playing against that week,” Scott said. “That is what we are continuing to do here. I know this group has been through a lot, and I definitely expected them to play better.
“But now we have Florida, and that’s another opportunity for us to get better. I believe we will.”
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