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USF starts slow again, falls to East Carolina in conference opener

“Obviously something is not connecting, especially in the first half,” USF coach Jeff Scott says.
East Carolina wide receiver C.J. Johnson makes a touchdown reception over USF defensive back Joshua Green on Saturday.
East Carolina wide receiver C.J. Johnson makes a touchdown reception over USF defensive back Joshua Green on Saturday. [ PETER JONELEIT | ZUMAPRESS.com ]
Published Oct. 1|Updated Oct. 1

USF ended a distracting week with another agonizing loss Saturday afternoon — 48-28 to East Carolina — a Bulls “home game” moved 240 miles south to Boca Raton because of Hurricane Ian.

Playing at FAU Stadium before a smattering of green-and-gold fans, the Bulls came out in the first half of their American Athletic Conference opener and performed like a team that had been pulled through a knot hole the previous five days.

After the first 30 minutes, the discombobulated Bulls trailed 41-7, adding emphasis to the fact they have started games notoriously slow. In their four losses, the Bulls have trailed by an average of 26 points at halftime.

USF (1-4, 0-1) again showed fight and grit in the second half, but once it was too little too late.

“Obviously something is not connecting, especially in the first half,” USF coach Jeff Scott said. “It’s going to take everybody, coaches and players to go back and figure it out. … We did win the second half (outscoring ECU 21-7), and it does show that we’re continuing to fight, but we’re not coming out here to win the second halves of games. We’re coming out here to win games.”

Scott made it a point to say Hurricane Ian didn’t figure into the poor play, though the distractions were plentiful.

On Tuesday at 3 p.m. USF left for a bus ride that took eight hours because of congested roads full of evacuating Floridians. On Wednesday the Bulls practiced at the University of Miami indoor facility, but not until Miami finished, pushing USF’s start time to 7:30 p.m.

Then on Thursday they moved practice to Cardinal Gibbons High, before getting a walk-through at FAU Stadium on Friday.

USF wide receiver Jimmy Horn Jr. scores ones of his two touchdowns against East Carolina.
USF wide receiver Jimmy Horn Jr. scores ones of his two touchdowns against East Carolina. [ PETER JONELEIT | ZUMAPRESS.com ]

There also is little doubt that injuries played a significant part in the struggles: Missing defensive starters included linebacker Antonio Grier, cornerbacks TJ Robinson and Daquan Evans and defensive tackle Rashawn Yates; missing offensive leaders included running back Jaren Mangham, receiver Ajou Ajou, and left tackle Donovan Jennings, who broke his leg last week in Louisville and is out for the season. Even the Bulls’ starting punter, Andrew Stokes, was out with a pulled hamstring.

The result was many Bulls, particularly on defense, out of position and a step behind.

In the first half alone, ECU quarterback Holton Ahlers had completed 20 of 26 passes for 352 yards and five touchdowns. Ahlers, who came into the game with 1,067 passing yards and nine touchdowns, finished Saturday’s game with 465 passing yards and six touchdowns.

Despite all the ECU (3-2, 1-0) fireworks, USF did end up making it interesting for a few moments in the final 30 minutes, when the offense and quarterback Gerry Bohanon finally found some rhythm.

With 8:06 remaining in the game, USF running back Michel Dukes appeared to have dived 2 yards for a touchdown that would have cut the gap to 48-35. After a replay review, however, Dukes was ruled a half-yard short. ECU then stuffed USF on three straight running plays, keeping the Bulls out of the end zone.

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Bohanon finished with his best overall performance of the season, completing 18-of-28 for 253 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. He threw his first touchdown of the season with 13:13 left in the second quarter, a slant to Jimmy Horn, who took off untouched for a 91-yard score.

Horn ended up with a career day, catching eight passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns. Running back Brian Battie had another solid performance, rushing 15 times for 96 yards.

ECU, which came in with the nation’s 22nd-ranked offense (495.3 yards a game), finished with 575 total yards against the Bulls, who in their previous four games had given up an average of 487.8 yards a game.

“First of all we have to start the game off faster,” USF linebacker Dwayne Boyles said. “The whole team is tired of going down before halftime. So we’ll just go back and get to work. That’s what we have to do.”

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