USF journal: Nico Sawtelle and Co. pick Georgia Tech apart

USF linebacker Nico Sawtelle (54) takes the interception and runs with it during the second half. (OCTAVIO JONES |  Times )
USF linebacker Nico Sawtelle (54) takes the interception and runs with it during the second half. (OCTAVIO JONES | Times )
Published Sept. 8, 2018

TAMPA — Georgia Tech and it's triple-option offense could hardly be stopped. The Yellow Jackets finished Saturday's game against USF with 698 yards, and almost every time the Bulls made a move, Georgia Tech had an answer.

Until LB Nico Sawtelle got involved, that is.

The junior from Jensen Beach, was responsible for two, fourth-quarter turnovers, coming up with a big fumble recovery, then picking off Yellow Jacket QB TaQuon Marshall with less than four minutes to play and returning it 22 yards. Both plays set up touchdowns that helped the Bulls march back from a 10-point deficit to beat Georgia Tech 49-38.

"I was slow playing the ball, then I got off the block. Bentlee (Sanders) squared the ball out, I saw the ball right there and I jumped on it," Sawtelle said about his fumble recovery. "On the interception, Kirk (Livingstone) had a great pass rush, knocked the ball in the air … I tried to get as many yards as I could to help out the team."

In total, Georgia Tech had three turnovers, two of which were interceptions. USF was second in the nation last year in that category, coming away with 20 picks on the season. The personnel may be a little different this year on defense, CB Ronnie Hoggins said, but the ball-hawking expectations haven't changed.

"The standard is the standard here. We pride ourselves on the standard, and the standard can't be lowered for nobody," said Hoggins, who had USF's first interception of the game. "Those guys left, and we have to embark on what they left behind and try and do better than they did. That's how you build programs.

Dazzling debuts

Last week against Elon, USF's offense did enough to win, but the run game, at times, left much to be desired, and two Bulls who were hyped in the preseason — RB Duran Bell Jr. and RB Jordan Cronkrite — were noticeably absent.

"As an offensive line, we probably should have given them more yards, because we left some yards out on the field," OL Marcus Norman said at a press conference last Monday. "That's what we have to work on, because we really could have had a lot more rushing yards than we did."

Saturday against Georgia Tech, Bell and Cronkrite made their USF debuts, and both helped propel the Bulls to victory against the Yellow Jackets, the first of two Power 5 opponents USF will play this season.

Bell, a redshirt freshman and 2017 Hillsborough High grad, turned heads in the preseason, and he did the same on Saturday, rushing for 69 yards and a touchdown — a 14-yard run for a go-ahead score in the third quarter. Bell was assisted off the field in the fourth quarter following three straight rushes for a total of 23 yards, which helped set up a Terrence Horne touchdown to cut Georgia Tech's lead to three.

Coach Charlie Strong admitted after last week's game that Cronkrite, a transfer from Florida, could have played against the Phoenix despite a minor practice injury, but Strong held him back, he said, because he wanted him fresh to take on the challenge he knew Georgia Tech would be.

Cronkrite made his delayed first carry count, picking up 14 yards for a first down on the game's first play from scrimmage. Cronkrite finished the game with 39 yards on four carries.

"The thing about that group is that, you have so many guys now. We have enough guys there where we can move guys around and just offensively, we can do a lot of things with them," Strong said about his running backs. "Cronkrite is a complete back. He has speed, he can block well. Bell is a speed guy, he's going to give you speed."

Another homecoming

Tampa natives are strewn all over USF's roster, and Saturday against Georgia Tech, one more hometown kid took the field at Raymond James Stadium when DT Kyle Cerge-Henderson started for the Yellow Jackets. Cerge-Henderson — a 2015 Plant High graduate who played alongside USF CB Mazzi Wilkins for one year — had 90 tackles, 37 for loss, during his senior season in 2014, helping lead the Panthers to a region semifinal finish.

Against the Bulls, he continued that defensive dominance.

Cerge-Henderson gave Barnett trouble all afternoon, sacking him twice in the first half for a combined loss of 10 yards. The junior led the Yellow Jackets in tackles in the first half, and he finished the game with six tackles, three for loss.