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USF goes out with a whimper in 38-20 Gasparilla Bowl loss

The Bulls start the season 7-0, then reel off six straight losses.
USF running back Jordan Cronkrite (2) is tackled during the second quarter in the Gasparilla Bowl at Raymond James Stadium. (OCTAVIO JONES | Times)
USF running back Jordan Cronkrite (2) is tackled during the second quarter in the Gasparilla Bowl at Raymond James Stadium. (OCTAVIO JONES | Times)
Published Dec. 21, 2018|Updated Dec. 21, 2018

TAMPA — Four days after kicking off Gasparilla Bowl festivities with an intrasquad belly-flop contest at a Treasure Island hotel, USF did it again Thursday.

This time, minus the belly part.

Despite a month to heal its physical and psychological scars, a fresh voice calling plays, and the biggest home-field advantage one could hope to secure in a bowl setting, the Bulls fizzled, floundered and — you guessed it — flopped against Marshall.

The only thing the Bulls took away from this rain-drenched 38-20 loss to the Thundering Herd — aside from a few bowl parting gifts — was notoriety.

USF becomes the first team in major college history to finish 7-6 after starting 7-0, according to the Associated Press.

"I hate it for the seniors who put so much into this program," said Bulls second-year coach Charlie Strong, who in the last two months has become Tampa's most maligned coach this side of Dirk Koetter .

"They've done so much for the program that you wanted to go out and just win this game and just stop the slide and win it for them. But when you don't tackle well, you don't execute, you don't play well, that's what happens."

On the two-month anniversary of the Bulls' last victory (homecoming against Connecticut), Marshall exploited USF's shoddy tackling for 503 total yards before an announced Raymond James Stadium crowd of 14,135. In what would serve as a harbinger of sorts, Thundering Herd redshirt freshman Brenden Knox opened the game with a 43-yard burst up the middle.

Marshall finished with 282 rushing yards, becoming the ninth USF foe this season to eclipse 200.

RELATED: Photo gallery from Gasparilla Bowl

Offensively, the de facto audition of interim Bulls play-caller Justin Burke fluctuated between sparkling, spotty and slapstick. Redshirt freshman Randall St. Felix, a virtual non-factor in the second half of the regular season, re-emerged with a USF bowl-record 165 yards (and two touchdowns) on six receptions.

"We opened up more plays," St. Felix said.  "We had more plays opened for our receivers and we clicked well tonight."

He capped the Bulls' lone first-half highlight, sprinting behind his coverage for a 38-yard touchdown pass from slot receiver Tyre McCants, who took a direct snap.

But in what had long since evolved into a grim theme for this season of disillusionment, USF struggled for any kind of consistency.

Third-year sophomore quarterback Chris Oladokun lasted two possessions before being replaced by regular starter Blake Barnett (11-for-23, 212 yards, one touchdown), who only recently returned to a full practice schedule due to right ankle and calf injuries sustained in a Nov. 17 loss at Temple.

When neither of those were taking snaps, McCants took periodic ones in a wildcat formation.

"(Barnett) has a lot of heart because he wasn't 100 percent, we all know that," St. Felix said. "But he played like a warrior."

His leg shrouded in white tape, Barnett was sacked on his first play. On his second, he failed to secure an errant shotgun snap that defensive end Darius Hodge scooped up and returned 29 yards to the USF 1, setting up Marshall's second touchdown.

While that sequence elicited no boos, the final moments of the first half did.

With USF trailing 28-7 and facing fourth-and-goal from the 4 with nine seconds remaining, Strong opted for a 22-yard Coby Weiss field goal.

"I didn't want to leave out of there with no points, because we were down what, 21-7?" said Strong, whose team actually was down 28-7 at that point. "So it ended up being 21-10 (actually 28-10), then we get the ball to start the second half."

Weiss added a 31-yarder to cap the second half's opening drive, and Barnett's 33-yard scoring toss to St. Felix cut USF's deficit to 31-20 late in the third.

But Marshall essentially sealed things with an 11-play scoring drive in the fourth quarter, capped by Keion Davis' 16-yard touchdown run with 6:24 to play.

That sent most of the remaining USF fans trudging toward the exits.
Just how many of them return in 2019 suddenly is a concern in an offseason sure to be full of them.

Which perhaps explains why Strong again spent part of his postgame press conference indicating all the star power he had to replace from last season's 10-2 squad: four defensive players currently on NFL rosters, a receiver now playing in the NFL (Marquez Valdes-Scantling) and arguably USF's greatest player ever (Quinton Flowers).

"There's work that needs to be done in the program and we've got to go get it done," Strong said. "We've got to coach better and we've got to play better and there's a lot that needs to be done."

Kean to transfer: Bulls fourth-year junior QB Brett Kean, who appeared in 17 career games but never started, intends to transfer. Kean, who led Ohio prep power St. Edwards to a state title as a senior, redshirted in 2015 and beat out heralded transfer Asiantii Woulard for the backup job behind Quinton Flowers in '16. He appeared neck-and-neck with Oladokun for the starting job after spring practice this season, before Barnett arrived and won the job in preseason camp. Kean exits with 333 career passing yards, three touchdowns and an interception.

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

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