TAMPA — The wild ride for USF and Houston Saturday night began the moment Bulls freshman Brian Battie received the opening kickoff at the goal line.
Battie burst through a wide hole, sprinted untouched down the right sideline and scored 13 seconds later.
What followed was a long list of dramatic plays by both teams, ultimately ending in a 54-42 victory for No. 20 Houston — extending a long losing streak for USF against top-20 teams.
Before Saturday, the Bulls (2-7, 1-4 in the American Athletic Conference) had lost 17 straight times to ranked teams, the last victory coming in 2011, when USF beat No. 16 Notre Dame 23-20.
“We almost have to play perfect to beat these really good teams, and Houston is really good,” USF coach Jeff Scott said. “It wasn’t an effort thing on our part. (Saturday) we just got beat by a better team in the second half. … There were some bright spots for us. Brian Battie was one of them.”
Battie returned a second kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter and added a 29-yard scoring run. His two 100-yard returns for touchdowns in a game make him one of only two players in NCAA history to pull off the feat. Utah’s Reggie Dunn was first to do it against California in 2012. Battie now has three 100-yard kickoff returns, his first coming in a 32-31 loss to Tulsa three weeks ago.
Battie’s 200 return yards in Saturday’s first half pushed the combined all-purpose yards for both teams in the first half to more than 800. Houston’s offense finished the first 30 minutes with 310 yards. USF totaled 232.
Similar numbers accrued in the second half, but mostly for Houston, which finished the game with 18 plays of more than 15 yards and nine of more than 20, including touchdown plays of 27, 55 and 97 yards. Many of those plays, Scott noted, came against a defense that continues to struggle with a lack of depth and simply “were gassed” as the game wore on.
“The same thing has been happening all year to our defense,” Scott said. “We want to help our guys, but there’s only so much we can do. We need to recruit some more depth on defense.”
USF countered Houston’s offensive prowess with 10 total plays of more than 15 yards and featured offensive touchdown plays of 33, 29 and 11 yards, the last a twisted, juking run by USF quarterback Timmy McClain with 3 minutes, 49 seconds left in the game.
McClain’s touchdown cut the Cougars’ lead to 47-42. Houston (8-1, 6-0) answered by recovering the Bulls’ onside-kick attempt at the USF 44 and then scoring three plays later to clinch the win.
In the end, the teams combined for 1,045 offensive yards, 646 for Houston and 399 for USF.
McClain, a true freshman who missed the last game and a half with an ankle injury, appeared to be 100 percent, often looking spectacular in extending plays with his quickness and speed. He finished with 22 completions in 46 attempts for 289 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions and often was forced to throw the ball away to avoid a sack.
For the first time this year Houston, which came in with one of the nation’s best defenses (ranked fourth in total defense with 286.5 yards allowed a game), failed to collect at least one sack. Before Saturday, the Cougars averaged 4.2 per game.
USF also did better than most against the Cougars in the third-down-conversion category. Houston went into the game leading the nation by allowing opponents to convert only 25 percent of their third downs. USF converted 8 of 16 of its third-down plays.
McClain ended up leading all Bulls’ rushers with 11 carries for 46 yards. Xavier Weaver topped Bulls receivers with six receptions for 105 yards.
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