BOWLING GREEN, Ky. — His only headwear was a headset. On a brick-oven afternoon in Bowling Green, Alex Golesh’s debut as USF coach was bereft of a ballcap, visor or even custom-designed, Coach Prime cowboy lid.
The irony of that fashion statement grew more profound by the possession Saturday.
For the first time in what seems a half-decade, Golesh’s team gave its beleaguered fan base something on which to hang its collective hat.
While the result was all too common — a 41-24 loss to Western Kentucky — this disappointment fell far short of debacle. Even the final margin was misleading; the Hilltoppers tacked on a late touchdown when NFL draft prospect JaQues Evans stripped the ball from Byrum Brown on a sack inside the USF 40 and rambled for a touchdown with 2:51 to play.
“There’s a lot of good, I’m sure, on the film. But it’s not good enough,” Golesh said. “So we’ve got to go back and go to work. I’m certainly encouraged by the effort, encouraged by what our guys are made of. Totally encouraged by where we’re headed.”
Before an announced crowd of 15,438 at Houchens-Smith Stadium, the Bulls ultimately were stymied by a lack of red-zone execution, a failure to muster a pass rush or adequate protection and three turnovers leading to 13 Hilltoppers points.
But right out of the gate, they established the run, and a defensive tone. There were splash plays, a mostly stout secondary, even special teams efficiency.
And most significant, hope for the immediate future.
The Bulls amassed 374 rushing yards and held Western Kentucky — a nine-win team the past two seasons and the Conference USA preseason favorite — to 465 yards total.
By contrast, eight USF opponents totaled 500 or more yards last season.
“Obviously we didn’t get the result we want,” junior safety Jaelen Stokes said. “But just seeing that we improved so much over the offseason, the work that we put in, we’re seeing results now. So definitely good for the future.”
Encouragement arrived before the first television timeout. Tailback Nay’Quan Wright, a Florida Gators transfer, ran for 37 yards on five carries on the game’s opening drive, a 13-play Bulls march capped by Brown’s 6-yard scoring run.
An 18-year-old redshirt freshman who brandished great promise in USF’s final two games last season, Brown was revealed as the starter around 90 minutes before kickoff. Though he was sacked five times and found himself under duress most of the day, he finished with 326 total yards and three touchdowns.
“Byrum’s a tough-ass dude,” Golesh said. “Certainly really talented. I’m happy he’s our quarterback, I think our team’s happy he’s our quarterback. He’s tough, he’s smart, he’s gritty. Got hit a bunch today. We’ve got to protect him better, and that’s coaching, too; it has nothing to do with players.”
Meantime the defense, worst in Division I-A in 2022 (average 516.6 yards per game allowed), forced three-and-outs on three of the Hilltoppers’ first four possessions and limited Western Kentucky to six third-down conversions in 16 tries.
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“I thought (we) got off the field at some critical times,” Golesh said. “Again, I’d love to see the film, but Western was 6-of-16 on third down, 1-for-2 on fourth. Did a really good job getting off the field, allowing the offense to have certainly enough drives to go win.”
Which isn’t to suggest Golesh’s team is devoid of glaring issues. Aside from a picturesque 84-yard scoring strike to senior Khafre Brown, Byrum Brown struggled mightily with his deep ball. He also was steadily harassed and tried squeezing a short throw into the end zone on first and goal from the 4, resulting in an early fourth-period pick.
“I really believe when you look at the film, you’re going to see execution is the difference,” Golesh said. “I think from an offensive perspective, simply execution in the pass game from a protection standpoint and from a route standpoint, we’re close. We’re not where we’ve got to be.”
Moreover, Western Kentucky scored on four consecutive possessions (excluding an end-of-half possession) upon finding its offensive groove.
But even amid a wild Hilltoppers rally (17 unanswered points), hope manifested itself in one of USF’s most significant drives of the last half-decade.
After quarterback Austin Reed’s 42-yard touchdown pass to Dalvin Smith gave Western Kentucky a 24-17 lead and palpable momentum, the Bulls responded with an eight-play, 75-yard scoring march early in the third. Brown capped the drive on a designed keeper, going left — behind Gaither High alumni Donovan Jennings and Andrew Kilfoyl — for a 28-yard touchdown on fourth and 1.
“I would just say, man, that we kept swinging,” Wright said.
Western Kentucky responded when Reed found Moussa Barry in single coverage for a 51-yard touchdown midway through the third quarter. Lucas Carneiro’s 42-yard field goal with 3:19 to play — capping a 13-play, 6½-minute drive — gave the hosts a 10-point lead and essentially sealed things.
“In the locker room after the game, everybody was eager to just say, ‘Keep swinging,’” Byrum Brown said. “This is one game. Don’t dwell on it, learn from it, and let’s get it right for (Florida A&M).”
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