As USF heads into the final month of a third consecutive lost season, you can either look for signs that the Bulls are close to a breakthrough or look for reasons why the turning point remains so far away.
Both were on display Thursday night in a 29-14 loss to East Carolina at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium that left linebacker Dwayne Boyles in near-disbelief.
“Very frustrating,” Boyles said, “because we know what we can do.”
The Bulls (2-6, 1-3 AAC) showed what they can do through baby steps of progress in the first half. They looked fine without starting quarterback Timmy McClain, who was sidelined with an ankle injury. They didn’t panic after getting stuffed on fourth down at the 4 to end their first drive and fumbling on the second.
They even looked like a team that could build on last week’s win over Temple during a 31-second sequence in the second quarter. Down 6-0 and facing fourth and 1 at the East Carolina 24, head coach Jeff Scott went for it. Jaren Mangham converted and rumbled up the middle for his 13th touchdown of the season.
After the Pirates fumbled the ensuing kickoff, quarterback Katravis Marsh hit Xavier Weaver three plays later for a 13-yard touchdown and a 14-6 lead. USF piled on by stopping East Carolina twice at the goal line for a pivotal stand.
But things unraveled in the second half with a litany of miscues that reminded you why USF has won only one of its last 19 games against Division I-A opponents.
First the Bulls allowed East Carolina (4-4, 2-2) to start the third quarter with a 43-yard kickoff return. That set up a touchdown.
Then Marsh made an ill-advised throw toward Demarcus Gregory. Pirates cornerback Malik Fleming jumped the pass and returned it 31 yards for a touchdown and a 19-14 lead.
“That was a big-time mistake,” Scott said. “That was a big momentum play, as well.”
That was evident by how USF played afterward. The Bulls’ next three offensive possessions covered 58 plays and featured two interceptions. And the defense finally caved on one disastrous drive where the Pirates converted on third and 7, third and 6 and third and 8 before running back Keaton Mitchell ripped off a 25-yard touchdown run.
“Ultimately in the second half, we just couldn’t get off the field on third down defensively, and offensively we couldn’t convert on third down,” Scott said. “That’s where the game was won and lost, right there.”
These issues are not new. USF entered the game ranked 123rd nationally in third-down conversions, so their 0-for-7 night shouldn’t be a surprise. The third-down defense was better (85th) but still shaky enough to lead to a sequence like the one that doomed the Bulls this week.
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There were other issues, too — the kinds that compound with struggling teams and make comebacks impossible. USF derailed one promising fourth-quarter drive with back-to-back holding penalties. Marsh ended that series with an interception, then threw his third of the night on the next drive.
So where does that leave USF heading into the final month of Scott’s second season? It depends on how green and gold your glasses are.
Scott has improved the culture and clearly grown the program from a dreadful first season. The offense has building blocks for success, with running back Kelley Joiner posting a second consecutive 100-yard game and Mangham rushing for a touchdown for his seventh game in a row.
The Bulls did what good teams do by capitalizing on the early fumble. When a would-be safety was wiped away in the second half, the defense eventually recovered to force a missed field goal. That’s something.
But it also wasn’t enough to get within a score of beating a middling AAC team in the rain. Instead of celebrating the program’s first winning streak in more than two years, the Bulls will enter a tough November (Houston, No. 2 Cincinnati and trips to Tulane and UCF) searching to find another victory left on the schedule.
Which means they left Greenville, N.C., the same way they entered it.
“I just feel like we’re on the brink — the brink of breaking through,” Mangham said.
On the brink, perhaps. But not there yet.
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