TAMPA — USF opened its American Athletic Conference schedule Saturday with a 20-13 victory against East Carolina, but it had to do so without the nation's top returner.
Freshman receiver and return specialist Terrence Horne tore his ACL in practice leading up to the game and will miss the rest of the season.
Horne, a state track champion at Miramar High, made a name for himself Sept. 8 in a 49-38 home victory against Georgia Tech, in which he returned two kickoffs — 98 and 97 yards — for touchdowns, tying an NCAA record.
His 264 kick return yards against the Yellow Jackets set a school record, and his average of 47 yards per return led the nation heading into Saturday.
The Bulls barely had a return game to speak of Saturday in Horne's absence; there were no punt returns, and DB Deangelo Antonine had USF's only kickoff return of the game, a 20-yarder in the first quarter.
"You hate to lose a player, because he had worked so hard. Not only is he a good football player, he's an unbelievable young man. Always has a smile on his face, would do anything you ask him to do," coach Charlie Strong said. "That one kind of hurt us."
For the third straight week, USF rallied and grabbed the lead in the fourth quarter that it would not relinquish. Against East Carolina the Bulls scored the go-ahead touchdown on an 80-yard run by RB Jordan Cronkrite to break open a tie at 13.
Late-game heroics have become a habit for the Bulls, who trailed by 12 last week against Illinois before scoring 18 unanswered points to beat the fighting Illini 25-19. On Sept. 8, USF trailed Georgia Tech by 10 before coming back to win. The Bulls have outscored their past three opponents 46-7 in the fourth.
"It says a lot. I said the same thing last week and the week before," QB Blake Barnett said about his team's fourth-quarter comebacks. "It says a lot about the team, and it's good and it's enlightening to see that, because it shows the team has grit."
USF's run game got off to a slow start, with the Bulls accruing just 27 yards on the ground in the first half against the Pirates. Cronkrite's 80-yard dash in the fourth made up a little bit of ground, but before that the Bulls had just 33 rushing yards on 22 carries.
"Cronkrite was able to hit the long one, but up until that point we were getting 3 and 4 yards a carry," Strong said. "We have to be better. We have to play better. We have to be physical there at the point of attack."
It seems USF could have used some help from RB Duran Bell, who missed his third game of the season. Bell, a Hillsborough High product, was injured and didn't suit up for the season opener against Elon, and he missed the game against Illinois because of an ankle injury. In the Week 2 home win against Georgia Tech — the only game this season in which Bell has played — he rushed for 69 yards and a TD.
Bell's absence placed more of the running load on Cronkrite and Johnny Ford, who combined for 142 yards rushing.
Just for kicks
In the offseason, USF was tasked with replacing Emilio Nadelman, who set a school record last season by making 21 field goals. So far, the Bulls have yet to consistently fill his shoes.
Coby Weiss has taken the kicks for USF the past two games and results have been mixed. The sophomore transfer from Tennessee State missed two of three field goal in the win against Illinois on Sept. 15, and his first extra point against East Carolina was blocked after QB Blake Barnett's 2-yard touchdown run. Weiss made his second and third extra points of the game.
"Who I see being my kicker? We just keep keeping it the way we're kicking it right now," Strong said. "Weiss is handling the field goals and extra points for us right now."
Jake Vivonetto started the Bulls' season opener against Elon, kicking field goals of 33 and 41 yards and making all four extra points. He missed the game against Georgia Tech because of illness but was available the following week against Illinois. But coach Charlie Strong opted to start Weiss against the Fighting Illini.
This and that
USF is 8-1 all time against East Carolina. ECU's only win was on Oct. 11, 2014, 28-17 at Raymond James Stadium. … East Carolina holds one of the longest shutout-free streaks in the nation, and it took the Pirates only 3 minutes, 52 seconds to extend it with a 2-yard touchdown run. ECU hasn't been shut out since Oct. 4, 1997 (ninth-longest streak in Division I-A). … Trent Schneider's 72-yard punt is tied for the longest in USF history. He had nine punts against the Pirates, averaging 49.2 yards.