TAMPA — After all the losing the past few years, USF was happy, but not ecstatic, about the 42-20 victory over Howard on Saturday night.
Concerns, mainly stemming from a discombobulated first half, were mixed in with the winning vibes.
“Where we are right now, we need to win,” said USF coach Jeff Scott, who is 4-19 in his third season with the Bulls. “You see some of those teams (across the country) who were big favorites today and didn’t win. I will tell you those teams would be happy with a win. … We’re still learning how to win games, and when you go into the half (leading only 14-7) with a team that hasn’t learned how to finish games in the second half, then you’re going to see what they’re made of.”
The first-half concerns began with an all-too-familiar slow start, trailing 0-7 after the first quarter to the Bison, an 0-2 Football Championship Subdivision team that USF was favored to beat by 40.5 points.
USF didn’t score for the first 18 minutes, 44 seconds, finally getting on the board when running back Jaren Mangham bulldozed 2 yards for a touchdown.
The Bulls, however, continued to struggle to find a rhythm on both sides of the ball before taking their first lead of the season with 2:10 remaining in the half when Clemson transfer Michel Dukes rushed 7 yards for a touchdown.
And though USF (1-1) held the 14-7 lead, they trailed in time of possession (Howard held the ball for 18:58 of the first 30 minutes) and third-down conversions (Howard was 6-of-9; USF 0-4). USF did lead in yardage, 204-188, but also trailed in first downs (12-11).
The second half, to the relief of many, was much better.
The Bulls pushed ahead to a 21-7 lead with 7:14 in the third quarter on a Mangham 1-yard touchdown dive. They followed that by mixing in a couple of splash plays, including a 60-yard touchdown run by Brian Battie (seven carries, 105 yards) and another 28-yard touchdown run by Dukes.
The Bulls pushed it 42-14 with 8:05 with a 1-yard touchdown run by K’wan Powell.
Perhaps the most encouraging sign on the night was a more consistent performance in the second half by Baylor transfer quarterback Gerry Bohanon, who finished 17-of-28 for 219 yards after throwing an interception in the first half.
“I think (Bohanon’s early inconsistent throwing) is something that’s happening early in the season,” Scott said. “It’s about getting everybody on the same page, and it starts with the protection and the throw, and we’re just missing those things a little bit. … We had some guys open and were not able to connect and that’s something we’ll come back and continue to work on. We’re getting there.”
Defensively, the fixes might not seem as easy. USF, after all, did give up 418 yards to 0-3 Howard, just one week after giving up 575 yards to BYU.
The defensive problems are exacerbated by injuries to four key players — linebacker Antonio Grier, cornerbacks Christian Williams and Daquan Evans and nickel back Matt Hill — all of whom were out Saturday night.
Scott said he wouldn’t know until probably the middle of next week if any of those players will be able to go at Florida next Saturday in The Swamp.
Either way, Scott said the Bulls relish the opportunity to take on the Gators and quarterback Anthony Richardson.
“We’re gonna have to take a big step of improvement for us to be able to go out and do what we need to do next Saturday night,” Scott said. “(Richardson) is very dynamic and there’s not too many in college football like him with his size and true 4.3 speed. But he is but one of many challenges for us next week.”
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