TAMPA — After arguably the most difficult five-game stretch of any Division I-A team to start the season, USF ran onto the field Saturday at Raymond James Stadium full of fire and purpose against Tulsa.
But the difficulties continued, this time with a 32-31 loss.
The Bulls’ painful end came in the final minutes, with Tulsa (3-4, 2-1 AAC) driving and facing fourth and 3 at the USF 20 with 1:52 remaining. But Davis Brin completed a 6-yard pass to Josh Johnson for the first down. Three plays later, Shamari Brooks scored on a 3-yard run, finishing the nine-play, 42-yard drive and giving the Golden Hurricane the lead for good with 47 seconds left.
Before Tulsa’s winning drive, the Bulls (1-5, 0-2) had a chance to solidify their 31-26 lead with 4:20 remaining and possibly run out the clock. Facing fourth down and a foot at the USF 42, Bulls coach Jeff Scott decided to go for it, with a handoff to Jaren Mangham. But Tulsa stuffed the USF running back short of the first down.
“I felt very confident in that situation with Jaren Mangham to get that yard,” Scott said. “I decided to be aggressive in that situation. Get the yard and run out the clock, that was the thinking. That is on me.”
Scott praised his team’s effort and fight after its rough start to the season. Entering the game, the Bulls were one of only two teams — Arkansas being the other — in the 130-member Division I-A to have played four opponents currently ranked in the Associated Press Top 25.
“It’s a gut-wrenching loss, not because we were up and then let it get away, but because our guys played their tails off,” he said. “I am so proud of the way they fought.”
For much of the game, USF played like a winning team, particularly in the first half behind a host of big plays.
On the first play of the second quarter, there was linebacker Antonio Grier crunching Tulsa running back Anthony Watkins, popping the ball loose, grabbing it and taking off before being tackled at the Hurricane 12. Three plays later, Mangham bulled in from the 1, giving the Bulls a 10-3 lead.
There was Grier again with 5:54 remaining in the second quarter, intercepting a pass and returning it 69 yards for a touchdown to expand USF’s advantage to 24-10.
Between those highlights, there was freshman Brian Battie weaving through and racing past Tulsa defenders, ultimately returning a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown. It was the third 100-yard kickoff return in the Bulls’ 25-year football history.
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Sprinkled among all that was a pass off a fake field goal to kicker Spencer Shrader that fell just short of a first down at the Tulsa 20 and a couple of stellar defensive stops inside the USF 5, resulting in two Hurricane field goals instead of touchdowns.
But there also were mistakes that proved costly.
With a minute remaining in the second quarter, freshman Jimmy Horn fumbled a kickoff return. Tulsa capitalized, Brin passing 37 yards to Sam Crawford for a touchdown, cutting the Bulls’ lead to 24-20 heading into halftime.
USF extended its lead to 31-20 with 4:30 left in the third on the strength of a couple of nice defensive stops, sandwiched between a 10-play, 81-yard touchdown drive — freshman quarterback Timmy McClain running the final 8 yards for the score.
But the Bulls could have held a bigger advantage if not for another key mistake. With 9:52 left in the third, they roughed Tulsa punter Lachlan Wilson, wiping out a 54-yard punt return for a touchdown by Xavier Weaver.
McClain finished 10-of-25 passing, with no touchdowns or interceptions. He also rushed 14 times for 24 yards and the touchdown. In the second half, McClain and the offense put together only one consistent drive, the 81-yarder in the third quarter. That lack of offense helped Tulsa outscore USF 12-7 in the second half.
The Hurricane severely outgained the Bulls in total yards, 535-268, including a 172-32 advantage in the fourth quarter.
“You can’t really put words to this loss,” USF linebacker Dwayne Boyles said. “It hurts.”
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