TAMPA — Of the 13 losses coach Jeff Scott has experienced in his 15 games at USF, Saturday hurt the most.
It wasn’t just the final score — Tulsa 32, USF 31. Or the way it ended, with the Bulls getting stuffed on a late fourth-down conversion and allowing the fatal touchdown in the final minute.
The pain came from everything that led up to the defeat and everything that could have come afterward, if one or two plays went their way.
“There’s progress there,” Scott said Tuesday. “But still not enough to get over that hump.”
The progress is what makes the results so frustrating for a second-year coach who still is searching for his first win against a Division I-A opponent.
USF had other close calls last year, with a two-point loss at Temple — whom the Bulls host Saturday — and a one-point loss to Memphis. But those felt different. Last year’s Bulls simply were trying to keep things together through the turmoil of the pandemic and the cultural changes Scott was implementing.
Lucking into a win would have been nice, but the big picture wouldn’t have looked much different. The long-term challenges would have remained.
“Last year, we could have won one of those games, but we would have been right back at Square One,” Scott said. “We were nowhere close to the foundation I feel like we have right now.”
The foundation starts with a cultural shift that Scott and his players talked up during the offseason. It’s evident now, too. Scott said players on opposite sides of the ball aren’t pointing fingers at each other.
“That’s progress from where we were a year ago,” Scott said.
Look closely enough, and you can see other signs of growth, too. USF is averaging more rushing yards this year than 2020, despite a brutal schedule. The scoring defense is better. The Bulls finally have a short-term and long-term answer at quarterback in Timmy McClain. Their problems are changing weekly, which means the staff is fixing mistakes instead of watching the same ones doom them game after game.
Add in the extra time to prepare off the open date and the team’s effort and execution, and Scott said last week was the first time his Bulls put everything together to position themselves for a win.
“I felt like last game was going to be the breaking point,” running back Jaren Mangham said. “But things didn’t work out in our favor.”
Instead, the Bulls are left hoping this week will be the breaking point. Perhaps it will be. Temple is a soft 3-3 and isn’t among the top 100 teams in the country according to ESPN’s SP+ analytics and the Sagarin ratings. This, like Tulsa, is a winnable game.
Maybe even a must-win game.
“Now we’re literally at the point where we need to win,” Scott said.
The incremental signs of progress are nice, but you don’t win a conference championship — Scott’s long-term goal — or go to a bowl because your run game is slightly better. At some point, growth needs to show up on the scoreboard.
If it doesn’t happen this week, when will it? USF likely will be underdogs in every other game, including at East Carolina next Thursday and at 1-5 Tulane on Nov. 20. It would be possible, if not probable, that USF goes two straight seasons without beating a Division I-A opponent.
But if USF finds a way to beat the Owls instead of finding another way to lose? Scott can envision one victory boosting the team’s confidence and energy, becoming a breakthrough win that turns into another and starts to turn the program around.
“We’re really close,” Scott said. “There’s no doubt.”
But, as the pain of last week showed, close is no longer good enough.
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