TAMPA — A week after showing unmistakable forward progress in its season opener, USF brandished the vertical kind Saturday night.
The Bulls, after all, are on a climb — a steep one — back to relevance. And Saturday night’s palpitating, penalty-filled 38-24 triumph against Florida A&M was a conquest nearly a calendar year in the making.
“I said said it from the very beginning from when I got here: It has to become process-driven here,” first-year coach Alex Golesh said shortly after his first career head-coaching triumph.
“I feel more (Saturday) than I ever did that we’re laying a foundation. And I know the expectation is to win; it’s my expectation as well as certainly it should be everybody else. But there has to be a foundation laid, in anything.”
The win snapped an 11-game losing streak dating to a 42-20 triumph against another Football Championship Subdivision foe — Howard — on Sept. 10, 2022.
Now for that next figurative ledge: snapping that 17-game skid against Football Bowl Subdivision opposition.
It could remain elusive if the Bulls’ flag propensity (more than 200 penalty yards in two games) and shoddy pass protection (11 sacks in two contests) continue. But it also could arrive later in the month if they counterpunch and capitalize the way they did in Golesh’s home debut.
Say this about Golesh’s team: It knows how to get off the floor. That resilience manifested itself often Saturday but never more significantly than the fourth quarter.
Florida A&M quarterback Jeremy Moussa — a Vanderbilt transfer — cut his team’s deficit to 31-24 with a 45-yard scoring strike to senior Kelvin Dean with 10:04 remaining. But the Bulls answered when 18-year-old quarterback Byrum Brown — nestled in one of his rare clean pockets — lofted a 31-yard scoring throw to Naiem Simmons on fourth and 6.
“It’s like you’re right outside of where we feel like field-goal range is,” Golesh said. “That one I went back and forth a bunch. ... We looked to see what the look was to make sure we got the right play into it. Liked the matchup, certainly liked Naiem (executing).”
Senior Logan Berryhill’s interception of Moussa with 2:08 remaining — his second of the night — sealed things.
Those waning stages — Bulls stagger, then slug back — mirrored the opening ones.
After surrendering a seemingly effortless six-play, 78-yard scoring drive to the Rattlers on the game’s first possession, the Bulls answered with a 75-yard drive of their own — an eight-play composite of balance and a breakneck tempo — to tie the score.
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“I think when they score first, you want to see your team not flinch and just continue to play the next play,” Golesh said. “But our whole thing is all about playing the next play and not being super worried about the last one.”
In between, the Bulls gave a Raymond James Stadium audience of 36,495 a display of defensive opportunism (five turnovers forced) and abandon more riveting than reckless (four fourth-down attempts, two converted).
After failing to force a turnover in their season-opening loss at Western Kentucky, the Bulls forced four in the first half alone, though they led to only 10 points.
Following USF’s first TD, Florida A&M fumbled the ensuing kickoff (which sophomore Mac Harris recovered) inside its 20, and the Bulls scored in seven plays, highlighted by Michel Dukes’ 3-yard inside run on fourth and 3.
Brown’s 8-yard scoring scramble gave the Bulls a 14-7 lead.
“He’s just going to continue to grow as a quarterback, as a leader,” Golesh said. “It’s been really fascinating to watch his growth through two weeks.”
But for each display of chutzpah, there was a hiccup.
Example: Florida A&M’s 15-play field-goal drive in the third period was abetted by a Bulls holding penalty on third and 9. Its second touchdown drive was helped in part by a Bulls taunting penalty.
For the night, USF was whistled 14 times for 114 yards, including the periodic post-whistle penalty.
“It’s just game experience, and that’s not necessarily what you want to hear, but it’s the truth,” said Golesh, noting his playing rotation remains rife with players who had limited college reps entering 2023. “You make mistakes, you improve on them. It’s just truly experience.”
Three possessions after the field goal, USF went 53 yards — all coming on the ground — for a 31-17 lead. Brown scored after escaping from his collapsing pocket and dashing to his right for a 13-yard TD.
He finished with 220 total yards, going 20-of-34 for 197 yards through the air with three touchdowns and no picks.
“Our identity, I can tell you from two weeks is, we’re going to fly around and play really, really hard. Man, that’s awesome. That to me is a foundation,” Golesh said.
“We’re not playing super smart, we’re not executing at a high clip, really at critical times at a high clip. We do at times, we don’t at times. And we allow ourselves to get emotionally involved in individual plays. ... We’ve got to continue to pour into our foundation — attitude, effort, our process, everything. It’s certainly not perfect, and we’ve got to continue to chase perfection in that.”
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