TAMPA — Without any help, a defense can only keep its team in the game for so long.
Facing one of the most prolific offenses in the nation, South Florida’s defense played with passion and bent, but didn’t break, for a long period of Saturday night’s 16-6 loss to SMU.
SMU and quarterback Garrett Gilbert brought eye-popping numbers into the game. Gilbert led the nation in total yardage, posting 405.7 yards per game. Through the air, the Mustangs ranked fifth nationally with an average of 380.1 yards per game.
Yet, the Mustangs carried only a 3-0 lead into halftime because of an inspired performance by Bulls defenders.
Armed with six starters playing their final home game, the Bulls were up to the task.
The Bulls weren’t forcing three-and-outs, but they were forcing punts. On his first drive, Gilbert completed six consecutive passes as the Mustangs moved 59 yards to the USF 9-yard line without facing a third down, but the Bulls’ defense held and forced a field goal.
On the Mustangs’ four other drives in the first half, they only crossed midfield once.
Gilbert left the game with a knee injury a minute before halftime, forcing backup Neal Burcham into the game.
Perhaps deflated by their offense’s lack of production — the Bulls’ only points came late in the fourth quarter via special teams — the USF defense started to slip in the second half.
“I think they got frustrated after a while, but I think anyone would,” USF head coach Willie Taggart said. “I know deep down, they’re getting tired of (the lack of support.) That’s just human nature.”
Burcham led SMU to a pair of scoring drives in the third quarter, sandwiched around a drive that ended with a Hassan Childs interception on the Bulls’ goal line. Burcham was 9-for-18 for 91 yards and a touchdown, as well as the interception.
USF’s defense allowed 280 yards (201 fewer than SMU averages) and forced two turnovers, but there was only so much the unit could do.
“We’re fighting together,” defensive end Ryne Giddins said. “We’re not here to bash our offense just because they did this or did that. We’re here to play as a team and that’s what we do.”