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USF's shaky start morphs into 42-22 thumping of San Jose State

USF wide receiver Darnell Salomon, right, dives across the goal line ahead of San Jose State defender Andre Chachere during the second quarter.
USF wide receiver Darnell Salomon, right, dives across the goal line ahead of San Jose State defender Andre Chachere during the second quarter.
Published Aug. 27, 2017

SAN JOSE, Calif. — One quarter into his tenure as USF coach, Charlie Strong was trending on Twitter.

His Bulls' debut was sputtering along as infamously as Willie Taggart's had four years ago. After 15 minutes, the 19th-ranked Bulls had managed 22 yards (all on the ground), allowed a blocked punt, managed one first down and seen arguably their best defensive lineman — Deadrin Senat — get tossed for targeting.

"It was issues in the kicking game, penalties," Strong said. "Offense is about rhythm; we had no rhythm there at the very beginning."

But therein lay the difference between the languishing program Taggart inherited and the loaded one that fell into Strong's lap: Whereas the 2013 Bulls were crushed by a poor start, their 2017 predecessors simply were galvanized by it.

"We've got new coaches and everything," quarterback Quinton Flowers said. "But at the end of the day I told the guys we can't flinch."

Instead, they flourished.

Beneath a cloudless Silicon Valley sky, the Bulls spotted San Jose State 16 points, then scored four touchdowns in less than 12 minutes. Before dusk settled in, so had Flowers and Co.

By night's end, they had scored 42 unanswered points, run a program-record 101 offensive plays and rolled to a 42-22 triumph before an announced CEFCU Stadium audience of 13,377.

3 QUICK TAKEAWAYS: From USF's season-opening comeback

Flowers, whose modest Heisman chances briefly flatlined in the early going, finished with 282 total yards and two passing touchdowns. Senior D'Ernest Johnson (22 carries, 99 yards) had a 50-yard scoring run — courtesy of two blocks by receiver Tyre McCants — in his debut as the No. 1 back.

And the defense showed a pulse. Even some pop.

It's good that you have a good game like this, so now guys know that there's improvement to be made," Strong said.

"If you look at us, we can't get complacent. We're one of those teams that you want a game like this, so now it's almost like relief when they can feel like there's not as much pressure on them as they think there is, but then you have to play well to win games."

So breathe easy, Bulls fans. Your team flew home early Sunday morning with all its lofty goals safely stowed away.

If Saturday proved anything, it's that even potentially sparkling seasons possess a little smudge.

Strong became the first coach in USF history whose team didn't score on its very first possession. Worse, veteran punter Jonathan Hernandez followed the three-and-out drive by shanking an 18-yarder. That led to the Spartans' first touchdown.

USF, by contrast, had no first downs after three possessions. On the fourth, Flowers was sacked on second down and Hernandez's punt was blocked inside the red zone two plays later. That led to a 6-yard scoring pass from Spartans sophomore Josh Love to Bailey Gaither, giving the hosts a 16-0 lead.

"When we were down 16, I was like, 'Listen guys, it's a 60-minute game,'" Strong said. "'We're still in the first quarter, and we haven't even gotten going on offense.'"

For all practical intents, Flowers' 2017 debut occurred on the second quarter's opening possession, after defensive end Josh Black stuffed Spartans tailback Malike Roberson for a 1-yard loss on fourth-and-1.

"(The defense) brought the momentum," Johnson said. "After they did that, we told each other, 'We've got to go out there and score now. The defense is doing their job. We've got to settle down and let the game come to us.'"

Flowers responded by gaining 18 yards on two carries, and completing both his passes for 37 yards on the 66-play touchdown drive.

An interception of a batted pass by linebacker Nico Sawtelle set up a 12-play, 69-yard Bulls scoring drive, cutting their deficit to 16-14. After a Devin Abraham pick, Flowers found Rice graduate transfer Temi Alaka in single coverage for a 49-yard touchdown.

3 QUICK TAKEAWAYS: From USF's season-opening comeback

And the scare subsided.

Meantime, a defense mostly maligned last autumn held the Spartans scoreless for 12 consecutive possessions. Despite the absence of tackle Kevin Bronson (unspecified injury) and Senat's ejection midway through the first quarter, the Bulls held SJSU to 109 rushing yards.

More important, they mostly got the Spartans off the field on third down (SJSU was 3-for-11 at one point), and picked off three passes, including one by Plant High alumnus Mazzi Wilkins.

It's a pattern Bulls fans can only hope persists. Speaking of patterns, USF scored at least 30 points for the 18th game in a row, the nation's longest streak.

Alas, a positive type of trending.

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

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