HOUSTON — During this bizarre season in which sluggish starts have prevailed as USF's common denominator, the Bulls often have been accused of playing down to their level of competition.
Saturday, on a mild, cloudless Houston afternoon, they played downhill to it.
For a good while, anyway.
The No. 21 Bulls (7-1, 3-1) spotted Houston two early touchdowns before waging an offensive slugfest with the potent Cougars. And despite landing one telling counterpunch after another, the defense had no answer for the decisive blows of Cougars quarterback D'Eriq King, who willed Houston past USF for the second year in a row.
This year's final: Cougars, 57-36. The 57 points are the most allowed by a Bulls team in the program's 21-plus seasons.
In the end, the shoddy tackling and big-play vulnerability turned what might have been an encouraging performance into one that elicited another e-word.
"It was just totally embarrassing," Bulls coach Charlie Strong said. "We're a better football team than what we showed today."
King's nationally-televised, four-quarter showcase (a career-best 553 yards, seven total touchdowns) thwarted the Bulls' hopes for the first 8-0 start in program history and likely knocked them from the echelons of the ranked.
With Tulane's eclectic option coming to Tampa next weekend, it also raises fresh questions about its ability to fill run gaps and neutralize mobile quarterbacks.
The past two USF has faced — King and Connecticut's David Pindell — have combined for more than 331 rushing yards.
"You can't give up five touchdown throws, you can't (surrender) 13 out of (18) on third down," Strong said.
"When you play on the road and you play a really good football team, you've got to be able to get turnovers and you can't turn the ball over. And it's hard to match scores and it's hard to just play catchup, and that's all we did."
The Cougars (7-1, 4-0) scored on their first two possessions, converting three times on third and 9 or longer. King's 47-yard scoring dash put Houston on the board with 13:07 to play, and Marquez Stevenson's 15-yard run — on a King shovel pass — put the hosts up by two touchdowns less than four minutes later.
By contrast, USF managed one first down on its first two possessions, and had more penalty yards (45) than rushing yards (27) after one quarter. The Bulls' 14-0 deficit after 15 minutes marked the sixth time in the last seven games in which they've trailed after a quarter.
But things started clicking from there.
USF mounted a 15-play, 79-yard scoring drive spanning more than five minutes and ending with Jordan Cronkrite's 1-yard touchdown. Extending the drive was quarterback Blake Barnett's 16-yard scramble on third and 11 to the Cougars 24.
On the next play from scrimmage following Cronkrite's touchdown, Armwood High alumnus Mekhi LaPointe intercepted a hard king throw over the middle, and freshman Johnny Ford (16 carries, 106 yards, two touchdowns) scored on a 32-yard burst the following play.
The Bulls ran for 204 yards and watched seven receivers catch at least two passes. Barnett, meantime, appeared crisper (26-for-39, 263 yards) than he has in weeks.
"I think today offensively for the most part, I think we played our most complete game, besides obviously the turnovers and the two field goals," he said. "I think if we were more efficient in the red zone, that would've helped us a lot."
Indeed, consecutive third-quarter red-zone possessions, both of which resulted in field goals, likely will haunt the Bulls for some time.
Both came after King was whistled for intentional grounding in his own end zone, resulting in a safety that trimmed USF's deficit to 28-23. The Cougars answered both kicks, 23- and 25-yarders by Coby Weiss, with touchdowns that gave them a 43-29 lead.
But even if USF had punched it in both times, there's no guarantee they could've hung with the 5-foot-11 junior who has arguably evolved into Houston's most electrifying quarterback since Andre Ware.
In a play that typified his day, King appeared bottled up in the pocket upon taking a shotgun snap on fourth and 7 from USF's 36, but broke a tackle near the line of scrimmage. He then broke two more downfield en route to the touchdown and 35-26 Cougars lead.
"Very costly," Bulls middle linebacker Greg Reaves said. "We still felt like we were in the game, but it was definitely a big play. Just a momentum shifter."
He finished with scoring throws of 52 yards to Jeremy Singleton and 27 to Raelon Singleton. In all King, had six pass plays of 26 or more yards.
"Make 'em drive the ball, if anything," Strong said. "Don't let the ball get thrown over your head for big chunks, because teams aren't patient enough to drive the football on you. They want the big throws, and we gave them to 'em today."
Contact Joey Knight at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.