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Did USF turn a corner in tight loss to Gators? More tests await

The Bulls have played close games against top competition before, then failed to rebound, but say “we know we’re ready this time.”
USF quarterback Gerry Bohanon scrambles for yardage as Florida linebacker Scooby Williams (17) and safety Trey Dean III (0) close in during last Saturday's game in Gainesville.
USF quarterback Gerry Bohanon scrambles for yardage as Florida linebacker Scooby Williams (17) and safety Trey Dean III (0) close in during last Saturday's game in Gainesville. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]
Published Sep. 21|Updated Sep. 21

TAMPA — USF has been on the losing end of many football games the past couple of seasons. But there is a belief among the Bulls that they are more prepared to bounce back than in the past.

“This time it feels different,” offensive tackle Donovan Jennings said Tuesday, a few days removed from a hard-fought 31-28 defeat at then-No. 18 Florida.

“You can see the difference this year in that we really, really know we’re capable of doing so much more. I feel that this time we really learned (at Florida) that we have the confidence that we need to get those wins. Every year we’ve learned more. We know we’re ready this time.”

After last year’s competitive 35-27 loss at then-No. 15 BYU — the fourth game of the season — USF followed with a 1-7 record through the rest of the schedule.

A few minutes after Saturday’s game, coach Jeff Scott acknowledged that the Bulls (1-2) have played some of their best games in the most hostile confines the past two years (at BYU, UCF and Florida), and while that is encouraging, it is not where he wants the program to be.

“The key is we have seen what we can do, how we are capable of playing in some tough places,” Scott said. “But that high level of play needs to be the standard all the time. We shouldn’t play up to one team or play down to another. We talk about playing to a standard, and that’s where we need to get, always playing at a high standard no matter who the opponent is.”

Louisville quarterback Malik Cunningham is a dual threat who combined for 370 yards passing and rushing in last week's loss to FSU.
Louisville quarterback Malik Cunningham is a dual threat who combined for 370 yards passing and rushing in last week's loss to FSU. [ PHELAN M. EBENHACK | AP ]

On Saturday that challenge is at Louisville, also a 1-2 team coming off a tough loss, 35-31 to Florida State. It also involves taking on dynamic senior quarterback Malik Cunningham, who has been compared to former Louisville and current NFL star Lamar Jackson. Both can run and pass with impressive efficiency.

Against FSU, Cunningham rushed for 127 yards and threw for 243, raising his season totals to 282 rushing and 596 passing.

“He’s one of the best players in the country, and the offense goes through him,” Scott said. “So you have to account for him on every single play. We know what we need to do.”

The trick for the Bulls is getting that execution to come through consistently.

More than ever, USF does seem to have things it can depend on, especially the offensive line and running game. The past two weeks, for instance, USF rushed for 286 yards against Florida and 205 against Howard.

“We know Louisville has a great defensive line (tied for 12th in the country with 10 sacks, including four against FSU), but we look forward to the challenge,” Jennings said. “We’re just going to keep that same mindset that we’ve had (the past couple of weeks).”

One question mark for USF remains quarterback Gerry Bohanon, a transfer from Baylor who last year completed 173 of 275 passes (63 percent) for 2,200 yards and 18 touchdowns with just seven interceptions.

In the first three games at USF, Bohanon has completed just 53.5 percent of his passes (46-of-86) for 507 yards with zero touchdowns and four interceptions. Against Florida, Bohanon was 12-of-28 for 116 yards with two picks.

Gators safety Trey Dean III (0) tackles USF wide receiver Xavier Weaver, who leads the Bulls in receiving yards (252) so far this season.
Gators safety Trey Dean III (0) tackles USF wide receiver Xavier Weaver, who leads the Bulls in receiving yards (252) so far this season. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

The timing between Bohanon and his receivers has continued to be off, and Bohanon often has thrown too high.

Scott, who commended Bohanon for his gutsy running/option performance against Florida (15 rushes, 103 yards), believes the quarterback will find his groove.

“We know we are still not sharp enough in the passing game,” Scott said. “I told our guys the good news is that look what our offense was able to do running the ball. So once we get the passing worked out, which I know we will, we can really see what this offense is capable of doing.”

This week Bohanon will be without the services of Clemson transfer Ajou Ajou, who tweaked his groin before the Florida game and didn’t play last week. Deep threat Jimmy Horn, meantime, might be back after missing the Gators game with a sore hamstring.

On the defensive side, cornerback Christian Williams, who has been out with a leg injury, should be in the lineup

“No matter what happens or where we are, we have to embrace the adversity,” Scott said. “We did not handle adversity well in those first two weeks. (At Florida) we did play a lot better in a loud environment. So there are positives there. But now it’s time to take the next step and be able to finish it.”

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