Updated at 12:40 a.m.
This game started out the way we all hoped: the talented Bulls defense stopped the #1 in total offense East Carolina Pirates at midfield on their first drive. Starting from their own 14, the Bulls ran the ball up the gut several times, rumbling up to their own 49 yard line. Then Mike White threw a beautiful pass to Andre Davis for a 51-yard touchdown. Davis beat his coverage and White threw a well-timed, perfect ball. It was 7-0, and some hope started to filter through Ray Jay.
After exchanging punts, USF’s defensive efforts were not rewarded when a busted coverage left ECU running back Breon Allen wide open for a 35-yard touchdown pass. The Pirates had tied it, but the game was still under control. Quinton Flowers came in for no apparent reason, handed the ball off three times to Marlon Mack, and another exchange of punts ensued. Then the Bulls moved the ball with a whole jumble of positive plays: there was a bubble screen to Rodney Adams for 6 yards, a Pirate held Andre Davis for 10 yards, Davis nabbed a sideline pass for 25 yards, Kennard Swanson pushed up the middle for nine yards, Rodney Adams was horse-collared for 15 yards, and finally Marlon Mack capped off the drive with a 12-yard touchdown run. The Bulls were living up to their potential. And on Homecoming against the #19 team in the country.
USF held onto the 14-7 lead, exchanging punts again before Johnny Ward grabbed an interception with 37 seconds left in the half. The Bulls turned that turnover into points by driving back into ECU territory and getting a long field goal from Marvin Kloss before halftime. It really felt like the old days at the half. USF looked better than the Pirates and they were winning in every category: most importantly in points scored. Holding one of the best offenses in the country to seven points and 180 yards for a half is no small feat.
But hearts sank when East Carolina dinked and dunked down the field in the third quarter, wearing the defense down to a nub. Bulls linebackers played like they were tired, the secondary didn’t know who to cover, and ECU even overcame three holding penalties to go 84 yards on 12 plays for a touchdown while eating up six minutes of clock. Although USF was still up by three, it was clear who was now in control of the game.
In the second half Mike White started throwing terribly, and Shane Carden started air-raiding.
Although there were some good efforts and creative play calls on the next drive, penalty after penalty killed it. White threw a long interception on a 3rd and 30 from midfield, giving the Pirates the ball on their own 14. That turned into a second straight 12 play drive to take a 21-17 lead. The game had slipped away, and everyone in Ray Jay could feel it.
USF had a downtrodden look when they went three and out and gave the Pirates the ball back on their 21. And what did ECU do with another long field in front of them? They easily drove 79 yards for another touchdown. It was easy because the Bulls left wide open holes for Shane Carden and Breon Allen to trot through. The USF defense was done.
A personal foul and a nice return from Chris Dunkley gave the Bulls good field position to make a last ditch effort, starting their penultimate drive on the East Carolina 49. Three incomplete passes later, they punted.
Down by eleven.
With six minutes left.
In ECU territory.
Taggart called a punt.
Questionable at best and insane at worst. But USF did get the ball back, with 2:31 to go. A very messy drive got the ball to the ECU 11-yard line, giving Kloss the chance to keep the game on life support with a field goal that would cut the lead to eight with 31 seconds remaining. He missed the 28-yard chip shot.
The Bulls prepared for this game for two weeks. They worked on open field tackles, they worked on not getting penalties. They outplayed a good team for two quarters, but just couldn’t keep it up.
Andre Davis blamed penalties: "With the #19 team in the nation, we can’t expect to go out there and shoot ourselves in the foot and expect to win the ball game, it’s not going to happen." This is probably not a season where anyone should expect a signature win, but this one was definitely within reach. It was a nice taste of what has been and what could be again. But a loss is a loss and the Bulls need to figure out how to score more than 17 points in a game if they are going to salvage this season.