TAMPA — USF entered Saturday's homecoming contest against Connecticut needing not so much a statement game as a satisfying one, just a feel-good effort following a sequence of close, concerning ones.
Problem is, these Bulls never can follow a seemingly pedestrian script.
A would-be breather instead left USF fans gasping … again. Struggling to find an offensive rhythm — or the end zone — in the first half against the worst defense in major college football (658.2 ypg), the No. 21 Bulls needed the legs of 168-pound freshman Johnny Ford to escape with a 38-30 victory.
"We got the victory but we didn't play as well as we're capable of playing," coach Charlie Strong said. "We allowed this team to stay in the game. From the defensive side, we didn't control the line of scrimmage."
But on the flip side, UConn couldn't control Ford, who finished with seven carries for 164 yards and three touchdowns, the last of which (a 43-yarder) helped USF put things away (sort of) with 4:46 to play.
The Bulls now head to 6-1 Houston for a 3:30 p.m. nationally televised game (ABC) next weekend undefeated (7-0, 3-0 American Athletic Conference) but far from unblemished.
"It's amazing that we can sit here and complain 'cause we're 7-0, knowing we can play much better than what we're playing," Strong said.
The concerns are numerous. Run defense remains an issue, as evidenced by Huskies quarterback David Pindell gashing USF for 197 yards on 28 carries.
"It was really just bad fits, just us really fitting off each other," said junior Greg Reaves, shifted from defensive end to replace middle linebacker Nico Sawtelle (upper-body injury) on Saturday. "We're taught on defense just to make each other right, and we just weren't doing that the way we're supposed to."
Maybe that's who they are, the Cardiac Bulls, @mjfennelly says. Maybe we'll laugh and talk about destiny when they're 11-0 and UCF is in town. Hey, you can only beat who is on your plate, and USF has done that. https://t.co/JoFGqT90AU @USFFootball #USFvsUConn— TampaBayTimesSports (@TBTimes_Sports) October 21, 2018
Other problems: a bulging injury list, and a kicking game that has managed one field goal of longer than 40 yards.
And let's not forget an offense that can't seem to find second gear until the second half.
"We haven't (put 60 minutes together) all year long," Strong said. "The first half, the offense couldn't get it going, and the second half the defense couldn't stop 'em. We're not complete."
Facing a defense that entered the weekend allowing more points (53.7 per game) than the 2017-18 Huskies women's basketball team (53.4), USF didn't score until Ford's 15-yard touchdown burst up the middle with 43 seconds to play in the first half.
Its first two possessions Saturday ended with interceptions. The first, a hard Blake Barnett throw over the middle, ricocheted off tight end Mitch Wilcox. The second, intended for Wilcox (downfield in single coverage), was mildly under-thrown.
The Bulls' first five offensive drives: interception, interception, punt, punt, punt. All the while, UConn (1-6, 0-4) clung to a 7-0 lead, courtesy of a five-play, 58-yard scoring drive following Barnett's first pick.
USF finally broke through on possession No. 6, sparked by consecutive Jordan Cronkrite runs of 15 and 14 yards, and three Wilcox catches totaling 28 yards.
They took the lead on the second half's opening play from scrimmage, when Randall St. Felix caught a short Barnett throw near his sideline, broke a tackle and dashed upfield for a 75-yard touchdown.
A temporary cushion, and collective sigh among the announced crowd of 42,127, finally arrived with 6:07 to play in the third, when walk-on Coby Weiss nailed a 30-yard field goal following Ford's 78-yard run.
"It started with the (offensive) line," Ford said. "They made excellent blocks and I just cut off them."
The teams then traded touchdowns, with USF taking a 24-14 lead on Barnett's 20-yard scoring scamper with 2:34 remaining in the third. The Bulls appeared to put this one away when redshirt freshman Nick Roberts intercepted Pindell and returned it to the Huskies 15. Ford scored the next play to make it 31-14.
But instead of sealing the deal, the Bulls nearly squandered it.
UConn answered with an 11-play, 75-yard scoring drive, then cut it to 31-23 when kicker Clayton Harris nailed a 38-yard field goal following a Cronkrite fumble. Ford responded with his 43-yard curtain call.
And the Bulls survived yet another close call.
But survival mode won't be sufficient from here on.
"We play (at Houston) like we played (Saturday night), we'll really get embarrassed," Strong said.
Contact Joey Knight at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.