TAMPA — The first half was forgettable for USF on Saturday afternoon at Raymond James Stadium, but there were some significant second-half sparks — including a couple of interceptions and long completions — for the Bulls against No. 13 Florida.
The 42-20 loss didn’t sit well with Bulls coach Jeff Scott, but his demeanor was infinitely better than after last week’s 45-0 beatdown at N.C. State.
“There are no moral victories,” Scott said. “The goal is to win the game and we didn’t win the game. We played very poorly in the first half, but I do think we’re going to look back on this game in the second half and the way this group responded, being down 35-3 (at the half) and take some good things away from it. It’s very easy and very common for teams in that situation to roll over and quit. But our guys competed and hung together.
“I think we’re going to look back three, four, five weeks from now and say that the second half of this game is where we really started to turn the corner.”
Second-half Bulls’ highlights included: An interception and 44-yard return by Mekhi LaPointe (Armwood High) to the UF 10-yard line; an interception and 38-yard return by Brock Nichols to the UF 43-yard line; two fourth-down stops by the defense; two bullish touchdown dives at the goal line by Colorado transfer Jaren Mangham; and some overall electrifying plays by freshman quarterback Timmy McClain, who started the second half after senior Cade Fortin played the entire first half.
Ultimately, USF outscored the Gators 17-7 after intermission.
“I told our guys at halftime that we’re going to find out a lot about our team in this second half,” Scott said. “We have a team right here that is coming off a difficult loss last week, and then all of the sudden you’re down 35-3 at halftime. These guys have worked hard and they have responded well but ultimately you’re going to find out what you’re really all about in the games.”
McClain’s athleticism certainly didn’t hurt, as he provided a scrambling run on a broken play for 10 yards and a 44-yard completion to Xavier Weaver from the USF half-yard line.
“(McClain) wasn’t perfect (completing 4 of 10 passes for 83 yards) but he did give us a spark,” Scott said. “(McClain) showed some energy. It was similar to last week at N.C. State (when he relieved Fortin), but the difference this time is that he didn’t throw interceptions. He protected the ball better.”
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Scott, however, would not commit to a permanent starter.
“There were some decisions that both (Fortin and McClain) made that we didn’t want them to make,” he said. “But it’s tough to evaluate when you’re on the field. I have to get back and see the video before I can really grade them. ... The big-picture goal is to have our quarterback solidified before the fifth game, the first conference game against SMU.”
Fortin went 12 of 18 for 91 yards, sometimes looking pretty sharp, but still not completely solid after an almost two-year layoff.
Defensively questions remain, namely do the Bulls have enough depth and resiliency to hang through an entire season?
In the first half, the defense often looked vulnerable, giving up touchdown runs of 7 and 33 yards, and touchdown receptions of 35, 41 and 75 yards. The halftime statistics reflected the Florida onslaught, the Gators outgaining USF by 373 total yards to 143.
The Bulls held up much better in the second half, barring a few letdowns that included a couple of missed tackles on UF quarterback Anthony Richardson, who ripped off an 80-yard touchdown run.
“The (80-yard run) that (Richardson) made, you know, our guy should have made the tackle,” Scott said. “But I’ve been on the other side of those. I’ve coached players like (receiver) Sammy Watkins (at Clemson) and the bottom line is that he was just better than everybody else. There would be three people trying to tackle (Watkins) and he would break the tackles and he scores and we win the game. … We have to focus on what we can focus on and when you get an opportunity to hit those guys you have to wrap up. And we didn’t do that.”
But there is optimism going forward after this loss.
“We know that if we have our mind right and we execute we will have the result we had in the second half today,” said junior linebacker Dwayne Boyles, who finished with seven tackles. “But we also know we have to do it for all four quarters. We’re going to keep getting better. We will get there.”
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