EAST LANSING, Mich. — There was great effort, but it was largely wasted. There were opportunities to take command, but they were squandered. For a brief time, there was the vision of following up the greatest embarrassment in program history with one of its most significant victories.
Instead, that vision became a wretched sight.
The University of South Florida Bulls threw it all away.
In a matchup of offensive ineptitude, the Michigan State Spartans somehow escaped with a 21-6 win against USF on Saturday afternoon. They should send a box full of thank-you cards to Fowler Avenue. Make no mistake, USF gift-wrapped this one.
Coming off an unthinkable 32-point home defeat against McNeese State, a Football Championship Subdivision program, when USF’s defense offered little to no resistance, the Bulls played with pride and swagger. They limited Michigan State (2-0) to 265 yards and just one touchdown drive (nine plays, 33 yards).
But the game was decided by a pair of blind-side hits on USF senior quarterback Bobby Eveld. And turnovers on those plays produced two touchdowns for sophomore defensive end Shilique Calhoun, one on a 4-yard fumble return, the other on a 56-yard interception score.
“I told our guys beforehand, ‘If we don’t turn the ball over, we’re going to win this ballgame,’ ” USF coach Willie Taggart said.
Taggart read the game perfectly. But the Bulls, falling to 0-2 for the first time in the program’s 17-season history, didn’t cooperate.
USF’s offense certainly didn’t do its part. The Bulls gained just 155 yards, the program’s seventh-lowest total. For only the 11th time in USF’s 187-game football history, the Bulls were held below 200 yards of offense.
“People are going to panic when you don’t win, and we haven’t won in a while,’’ Taggart said after USF’s 11th loss in its past 12 games, dating to last season, when Skip Holtz was the coach. “We’ve got to stay in our cocoon and not let the other stuff bother us. If we’re not doing things right, people are going to label us and say bad things about us. That’s just the way it is.
“Mr. (Doug) Woolard (the athletic director) didn’t hire me to lose. We’re going to win ballgames. We have the opportunity to win, but our guys don’t know how to do that yet.
“The little things add up. We’re training our guys. We’re closer, but we’re not there yet.’’
Senior running back Marcus Shaw kept the chains moving with a 94-yard rushing day, but USF’s passing game was far from adequate. Eveld completed six of 25 passes for 66 yards. Under siege all afternoon, he also took three sacks and Michigan State had 11 quarterback hurries.
A major turning point occurred late in the half, when Michigan State punt returner Andre Sims Jr. was hit by USF’s Hans Louis, who forced a fumble and recovered it at the Spartans’ 23-yard line. Trailing 7-3, USF had first-and-goal at the 7-yard line following a pass interference penalty.
First down: Eveld, hurried, threw it out of bounds.
Second down: Eveld, hurried again, stumbled and was tripped up before looping an underhanded attempt in the direction of Derrick Hopkins.
Third down: USF, disdaining a shot at the end zone with 13 seconds remaining, ran Shaw for 5 yards. The Bulls burned their final timeout and settled for a 21-yard field goal by Marvin Kloss, making it 7-6 and squandering the psychological advantage of taking the lead.
“We threw the ball twice before that,’’ Taggart said. “They were getting pressure on the quarterback and we weren’t getting anything done. They were in their pass defense and I thought we could run the ball in there. We came up a couple of inches short.’’
But when the passing game can’t execute, when confidence is shaken, those couple of inches might as well be a mile.
“Coach T (Taggart) always says the people who make the fewest mistakes are going to win the game, and today was a perfect example,’’ USF junior center Austin Reiter said.
“It’s most definitely heartbreaking to have our defense play their hearts out and we turn the ball over and we can’t score,’’ USF junior wide receiver Andre Davis said. “That’s just losing football.’’
Despite its effort, the USF defense agreed that the overall effort wasn’t good enough.
“It’s always difficult to take a loss, no matter what the defense does, no matter what the offense does,’’ USF senior defensive end Julius Forte said. “Every game, every situation is either a blessing or a lesson. Today was definitely a lesson.’’
Will USF learn from it?
“I don’t think we were overwhelmed, we just didn’t execute,’’ Taggart said. “All it takes is one guy to mess up. For where we’re at as a football team, we need nothing but good things to happen. We messed up on the little things and they killed us in big ways.’’
The opportunity was there. Then it was gone.