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USF rallies, then rolls past Syracuse

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Presumably, Florida State will arrive at Raymond James Stadium next weekend poised to unleash its frustration with off-tackle flurries and downfield haymakers.

Fortunately for USF fans, the Bulls know how to counter-punch. That much was learned Saturday afternoon before a sparse Carrier Dome audience announced at 32,288.

The Bulls (3-0) spotted Syracuse 17 points before answering with 28 points in a row en route to a 45-20 romp of the Orange. In its first significant test of 2016, USF aced the adversity portion.

"We've got a pretty strong jaw," Bulls coach Willie Taggart said.

The 17-point deficit was the second-largest USF has overcome, trailing only the 20-point hole the Bulls dug in a 38-30 win in 2014 at Tulsa. It took the Bulls all of 11 minutes, 45 seconds in the second quarter to erase it.

"I told 'em when (adversity) comes we're not gonna flinch, we're gonna look it in the eye and say, 'Bring it on,' " Taggart said. "Sure enough, we're down (17-0), no one panicked or anything. Guys just said, 'Let's go, we're all right. We're gonna be fine.' …And it was great to see our guys respond to it."

Still, handing Power Five foes a 17-point cushion likely isn't a sustainable recipe. Much like Syracuse, FSU — a 63-20 loser Saturday at Louisville — could be inclined to try to spread the Bulls out and punish them up the middle early.

That plan enabled the Orange — who periodically used a breakneck pace to run an ACC-record-tying 105 plays — to take a 17-0 lead after one quarter. The Orange drove 79 yards on 16 plays on the game's first drive, and made it a two-score game on quarterback Eric Dungey's 47-yard touchdown pass to Brisly Estime.

After 15 minutes, Syracuse had outgained the Bulls 214-64 and converted on four of six third- or fourth-down chances.

"Man, it was fast," Bulls middle linebacker Auggie Sanchez said.

"So I kind of think it was a getting-used-to type deal. They had a really good plan, I think they're gonna be a really good team. They kept gashing us in the A-gap and they get you out wide and they take advantage of you on the inside, and that's exactly what they did."

From there, Rodney Adams and Co. freshly squeezed every drop of momentum from the Orange.

"It was a slow start, but we had to collect ourselves on the sideline, tell each other to calm down and just play football like we normally do," said Adams (106 total yards, three TDs). "We calmed down and things started going our way."

Adams' 27-yard touchdown catch from Quinton Flowers, three plays after Marlon Mack's 40-yard run, cut USF's deficit to 17-7. On the ensuing Syracuse drive, the Orange failed to convert on fourth and 4 from their own 47-yard line and Mack (nine carries, 115 yards) scored on a 2-yard run five plays later.

Adams scored twice more before halftime, on sweeps of 9 and 19 yards. Syracuse's last five drives of the half ended with one failed fourth-down try, two punts, an interception (by Tampa Bay Tech alumnus Tajee Fullwood) and a fumble recovery (by Sickles' Nate Ferguson).

The Bulls went three plays and out on their first two possessions of the second half, and faced a fourth-and-1 play from midfield when Mack took a Flowers handoff and ran untouched around the left for a 52-yard touchdown.

"The defense shifted all the way over … and there was no one there," Taggart said. "He was just being a football player there."

USF then sealed things on the fourth quarter's opening play, when D'Ernest Johnson fielded a high punt from Armwood alumnus Sterling Hofrichter and returned it 83 yards for a touchdown to give the guests a 42-20 lead.

It was the second-longest punt return in school history; DeAndrew Rubin had a 91-yarder for a touchdown against Utah State in 2001.

Three games in, the Bulls appear poised to make a lot more noise.

But another staredown with adversity lurks.

"I would say I can't wait, but I want to enjoy this one for 24 hours," Taggart said. "Then we'll be on to FSU."

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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