TAMPA - Early on, the University of South Florida’s defense was aggressive and inspired, presenting the Bulls an opportunity to win.
But as Saturday afternoon’s game unfolded, USF’s offense, punchless and mistake-prone, gave the Bulls absolutely no chance.
USF couldn’t get away with its smoke-and-mirrors act this time, not against the No. 18-ranked Louisville Cardinals and junior quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.
Louisville smacked USF 34-3 to snap its two-game winning streak before a sparse homecoming crowd (21,365 actual attendance, according to the Tampa Sports Authority) at Raymond James Stadium.
Afterward, when the Bulls had clinched a dubious school record (12 straight quarters without an offensive touchdown), USF coach Willie Taggart clearly had seen enough.
Taggart announced that true freshman Mike White, who burned his redshirt season by appearing in two fourth-quarter drives, would likely start Thursday night’s game at Houston, where the Bulls will try to avoid an 0-for-October for offensive touchdowns.
“We all know the biggest issue with our football team, trying to find some playmakers,’’ said Taggart, after the Bulls gained all of 133 yards, the third-lowest total in program history, and registered just eight first downs. “We’re going to try to find some playmakers, however we can, wherever we can find them. If it’s playing guys both ways, we’ll do that. We have to.
“That’s something holding this football team back, not scoring points.’’
Louisville (7-1, 3-1) wasn’t tested much defensively. The Bulls (2-5, 2-1 American Athletic Conference) have six offensive touchdowns all season — fewest among the 125 Football Bowl Subdivision programs. Meanwhile, when USF sophomore Steven Bench served up a fourth-quarter interception to Louisville’s Charles Gaines, who raced 70 yards for a score, it was the seventh touchdown produced against USF this season by an opposing defense.
USF was without its primary offensive weapon, injured senior running back Marcus Shaw, who hasn’t played since Oct. 5. Senior Bobby Eveld started at quarterback, but suffered an ankle injury late in the first half, putting him on crutches. Bench, wearing a protective knee brace and not 100 percent himself, was the replacement.
Nothing worked, not even when White entered for mop-up duty, thus representing the ninth USF quarterback change since the season began.
The Bulls were limited to a 50-yard field goal by junior place-kicker Marvin Kloss. A pair of 15-yard penalties set up USF first-and-10 at Louisville’s 30-yard line. The Bulls promptly threw two incomplete passes and lost 2 yards on a run, bringing on Kloss.
USF’s most promising drive occurred in the third quarter. Freshman running back Darius Tice broke loose for a 24-yard run, then Bench hit junior tight end Mike McFarland on a 25-yard gain. But at the Louisville 18-yard line, Tice was dumped for a 2-yard loss and his fumble was recovered by middle linebacker Preston Brown.
“It’s frustrating because our defense is playing with a lot more confidence, our special teams are playing with a lot more confidence, and we need that on the offensive side of the ball,’’ Taggart said. “We need to play with swagger and a sense of purpose.
“I see these guys at practice and the things they’re capable of doing. But you don’t see that same confidence in the game as you do in practice. You think, ‘OK, this is the week we’re going to do something.’ Then we go out and don’t play like we’re capable.’’
USF’s defense mostly played up to its capabilities — for a while, at least. Louisville finished with 485 yards. Bridgewater was 25 of 29 for 344 yards and three touchdowns, although he rarely burned the Bulls deep.
“Teddy is a brilliant quarterback,’’ said Bulls junior defensive tackle Todd Chandler, who was Bridgewater’s teammate at Miami Northwestern High. “He can sense pressure. He knows when to get rid of the ball at the right time. To stop Louisville’s offense, you’ve got to get into the head of Teddy and we fell short today.’’
“We tried to eliminate the big throws, the big plays, but Teddy is so good at the checkdowns and throwing to the backs that it hurt us in the long run,’’ Bulls senior middle linebacker DeDe Lattimore said.
USF’s defense also was hurt by time of possession. Louisville had the ball for an outrageous 41 minutes, 43 seconds.
“Against a team like that and a quarterback like that, you’ve got to put up some touchdowns,’’ Taggart said. “We didn’t do that. When we did get down there, we turned it over in the red zone.
“Our defense kept us in the ballgame. If they can get some help from our offense, that game is totally different. When the defense is out there that long, they’re going to give up some plays. I don’t care who it is. We’ve got to find a way to generate some offense and some touchdowns.’’
The season has moved on. The quarterbacks keep shifting around. But the story hasn’t changed.