Four games in, USF unbeaten but hardly unblemished

At this stage, fans still don't know if the Bulls are for real or just fortunate
USF quarterback Blake Barnett (11) is sacked during the first quarter of the Bulls' win over East Carolina on Saturday in Tampa. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
USF quarterback Blake Barnett (11) is sacked during the first quarter of the Bulls' win over East Carolina on Saturday in Tampa. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Published Sept. 25, 2018

TAMPA — By this point, the trajectory of Raymond James Stadium's only undefeated tenant should be more discernible.

After all, one-third of the regular season is in the rear-view. As September segues into October, we've ascertained that UCF is sleek, FSU is skidding and the Gators are somewhere in between.

But USF? Based on the Bulls' body of work to date, one might have better luck tracking the Atlantic's next tropical disturbance.

One moment (i.e., fourth quarter vs. Georgia Tech), Charlie Strong's club looks as if it could make it through November unscathed. The next (i.e., East Carolina game), it looks like one that could be taken down at Tulsa.

"We have to get better," quarterback Blake Barnett, who leads USF in completions and candor, said following Saturday night's underwhelming 20-13 victory against ECU. "Even if we didn't have a bye week, I'd be saying the same thing."

Such is life on a precipice: ethereal and rarefied, but prone for a plummet at any moment.

"We have a lot of things to improve on," tailback Jordan Cronkrite said.

Related: Jordan Cronkrite's big run helps USF stay perfect with win over ECU

The Bulls (4-0, 1-0 American Athletic Conference) enter their bye weekend averaging 6.3 yards per play, fourth-best in the AAC and slightly better than the 2017 team (6.1). Moreover, they rank third in the conference in turnover margin (plus-3) and second in sacks (2.75 per game).

They're also the only AAC team to have defeated two Power Five foes (Georgia Tech, Illinois), rallying from double-digit fourth-quarter deficits in both games. Additionally, the arm of Barnett and the team's diversity at tailback (when healthy) clearly have allowed the offense to evolve.

But USF also ranks 120th among Division I-A teams in run defense (244.8 ypg), has no reliable kicking game, and is collecting 61.8 penalty yards per contest. Barnett, who completed nearly 70 percent of his passes (with one interception) his first two games, has completed 58.3 percent (with three picks) his last two.

Also consider: Strong has spent his last two postgame press conferences praising his team's resilience (come-from-behind wins against Illinois and ECU), while also acknowledging it wasn't ready to play.

"Details matter," said Barnett, who acknowledged trying to "harp on" some teammates at halftime of Saturday's game, when he was sacked six times.

"When you're not focused on them, one missed block leads to a (tackle for loss). One missed block leads to a sack. Three inches on a ball leads to an incompletion. Just little things that we have to work on.

"I'm not saying we're not capable of it, because we fully are. That's why I'm sitting here and I'm pretty frustrated, because we're 100-percent capable of it. We have the talent."

So as the season's most critical phase (seven conference games in a seven-weekend span) looms, what are fans to make of this enigmatic body of work?

The glass-half-full contingent might suggest the recent close calls will serve as teachable moments for the Bulls, who will emerge from the bye week more focused and (presumably) less banged up. The cynical segment may insist this is who these Bulls are, with every contest serving as a three-hour stress test for fans.

Following the ECU game, Strong was asked if the Bulls' resilience — specifically, the ability to win when not playing well — is the mark of a good team.

"I hope it is," he said. "I hope we can learn from it."

For now, hope will have to suffice.

Because no one really knows.

Times Staff Writer Matt Baker contributed to this report.

Contact Joey Knight at Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.