Before we dive into the nitty-gritty aspects of this game and the Bulls' season, I want you to take a moment and give yourself a hug. Seriously. Saturday's game was awesome, no matter how you spin it, and you deserve a reward for sticking with this team when any rational person would have been doing something else with their Saturday afternoons by now. Comebacks like that don't happen every day, so enjoy it. Soak it in. Brag to your friends. Watch interviews and highlights on YouTube. Get all the partying out of your system before Friday night, because God knows what this team has in store for us next.
Now that we've gotten that out of the way, we do have to accept some facts: no matter what metric you use, USF is not a good football team this season. They're currently 117th in F/+ and 116th in Sagarin, or if raw stats are more your cup of tea, the Bulls rank 108th in points per game (21.7) and 86th in points against (29.0). They're improving, and there is reason to believe they could be quite good in 2015, but right now the product is still rather poor, on both offense and defense.
But at the risk of saying there are some things numbers can't measure (because really, in this day and age, numbers can measure pretty much everything about football), there's more at stake here than where the Bulls fall in a matrix. Even though it doesn't feel like it right now, we've reached a very, very crucial part of Willie Taggart's rebuilding process. Right now, Taggart is recruiting at a level far above what he reasonably should be given what's happening on the field--even with the loss of top prospect Karan Higdon, USF's average commit rating is higher than a handful of Power Five teams including Oregon State, Syracuse, Purdue, Utah and Rutgers, and is the second-highest average among Group of Five teams behind Boise State. Eventually, Willie isn't going to be able to sell those prospects on potential, and that day is rapidly arriving. There's an unknown, magic number of wins out there that USF has to hit this season to keep the ball rolling. I don't know what it is, but I'm willing to bet it's more than three.
Say what you want about how the team's looked, but this is the closest thing we've had to a stretch drive in a while, and the most we've had to play for in late October in three years. The Bulls will likely be underdogs in four of their final five games, but not a single one is unwinnable. USF is treading a very fine line between success and failure right now-- that's three one-possession wins over awful teams-- and I won't pretend to know whether or not they can keep tightroping their way to salvation. But no matter how you spin it, the next five games are important, and every single win-- whether it's the result of a manic 20-point comeback or a defensive slugfest in the rain-- inches them a little closer to the ultimate goal. Imagine what could happen if they made it to six.
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Stray observations from A Tale of Two Halves:
- There should be more than a paragraph dedicated to how good Andre Davis has been since his return from injury. In our preseason preview of the wide receivers, we mentioned that Davis accounted for 45.6% of USF's receiving yards in Mike White's first four games, and how that wasn't a sustainable figure. Guess what? Davis has accounted for 52.6% of USF's receiving yards in the last two games. That's unreal. Instead of worrying about who the hell is going to catch passes when he's gone, let's just appreciate Dre's final five games as a Bull for all they're worth, and hope that he can put a cherry on top of what's been a magnificent college career.
- Statistically, Mike White had the best game of his career. That's all well and good, but his first half was about as ugly as he could have possibly played. Split it up by halves, and he went 7/12 for 61 yards (if you like to nitpick, like myself, three of those completions were screens) and one of the worst interceptions I've seen in quite some time in the first half... before rebounding for a marvelous 10/14 for 211 yards and three touchdowns in the second half. White is still very much a work in progress, and it remains to be seen if he's the quarterback of the future, but it was really nice to see him lead the team out of that hole and toss a couple beautiful deep passes to Davis to earn a much-deserved win. The throws to Davis will get all the hype, but my favorite play I saw from White was in the fourth quarter when Taggart rolled him out on a crucial 3rd and 8 deep in Tulsa territory, and he responded with a bullet to Rodney Adams to pick up the first down. You can see on the video here that his footwork is still a little iffy, but he's able to compensate with his arm, and that's still an marked improvement from a few weeks ago.
- This defense is young and streaky, and will probably remain young and streaky for a while. A lot of Tulsa's big plays in the first half came off coverage lapses and little mistakes, like Nate Godwin arriving just a moment too late on a jump ball from Dane Evans in the first quarter that turned into a 40-yard completion. Those errors will eventually iron themselves out, but I like what the defense is showing in the meantime-- consistent aggressiveness (apart from a stupid gameplan against ECU, but alas), and a propensity for takeaways and stepping up big in key situations. Still, the results may not be consistent for quite some time.
- Three cheers for the offensive line! I don't think anyone saw this kind of progress coming after the total fiasco in the NC State game. Not only did they keep White nearly untouched in the second half, they opened some huge holes for Marlon Mack and D'Ernest Johnson to run through, which was pretty much a first. Mack has been dangerous enough creating his own running lanes, and it was a pleasure to see him work in open space.
- The second half of Saturday's game was as close as we've seen to this team firing on all cylinders since Taggart took over. I think the Bulls are progressing too gradually to reach a formal "turning point," but this is as good a candidate as any.